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Open letter: China must release Ilham Tohti now

Monday 28 April 2014 - 1:00am

tohti-300x186PEN International is seriously concerned for the well-being of Uyghur writer, academic and Uyghur PEN member, Ilham Tohti, who was formally charged with “splittism” on 20 February 2014, amid a crackdown on Chinese Uyghurs critical of the government. His wife received formal notification of the charges on 25 February. Dozens of writers have joined American PEN in calling for his release.

As writers and artists, we join PEN American Center today in protesting the arrest of our colleague, Uighur writer and scholar Ilham Tohti, who is being charged with separatism for the peaceful expression of his views on human rights. Mr Tohti, winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been working peacefully to build bridges between Han Chinese and the Uighur people through his writing. His fate, now in the hands of the Chinese government, has profound implications for China's future. We urge President Xi Jinping to respect Mr Tohti's right to free expression by releasing him and dropping all charges against him immediately.

On 15 January 2014 authorities in Beijing arrested Mr Tohti at his home in front of his two young sons, who were forced to watch as dozens of officers raided their home. He was then effectively disappeared for over a month. Only on February 25 2014, did his wife, Guzaili Nu'er, receive formal notification that Mr Tohti was being held in a detention center thousands of miles away in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and was being charged with separatism, a particularly serious offence. He has been refused access to his lawyer. We understand that he could face life imprisonment or even the death penalty if convicted on this baseless charge. We are particularly concerned that authorities are using Mr Tohti's website, Uighur Online, as a pretence for his persecution. Mr Tohti founded Uighur Online with the express purpose of promoting understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese, and he has never advocated violence or promoted a political agenda. Instead, his website has served as a critically important counterpoint to the aggressive measures that Xi Jinping's administration has imposed against the Uighur people in the name of stability. Without dialogue, there can be no stability.

Human rights are of concern to all peoples regardless of frontiers, and freedom of expression is a fundamental human right recognised both under international law, and by the Chinese Constitution. Ilham Tohti has done nothing more than exercise the rights guaranteed to him by his country's own laws.

Indeed, respecting and protecting human rights is not a detriment to any state, but rather a sign of its strength. The Chinese government has stated that creating a harmonious and stable society is its goal. To do so, the country must allow writers, artists, intellectuals, and all its citizens to speak their minds freely and interact with each other and with the world through whatever platform they choose.

Releasing Ilham Tohti and other writers imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression, including Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, would show the world that China is a strong world power that accepts dissent as a crucial part of a healthy society. We know the Chinese people are ready to take this step. We hope their government is as well.

André Aciman
Edward Albee
Anthony Appiah
Ken Auletta
Paul Auster
Carl Bernstein
Judy Blundell
Giannina Braschi
Robert Caro
Roz Chast
Ron Chernow
Sergio de la Pava
Don DeLillo
EL Doctorow
Jennifer Egan
Deborah Eisenberg
Neil Gaiman
Peter Godwin
Barbara Goldsmith
Adam Gopnik
Philip Gourevitch
Beth Gutcheon
Molly Haskell
Aleksandar Hemon
Siri Hustvedt
Nicole Krauss
Chang-Rae Lee
Ariel Levy
Valeria Luiselli
Larissa MacFarquhar
Kate Manning
Kati Marton
Tess O'Dwyer
Francine Prose
Victoria Redel
David Remnick
Salman Rushdie
James Salter
Simon Schama
Stacy Schiff
Larry Siems
Andrew Solomon
Deborah Solomon
Judith Thurman
Lily Tuck
John Waters
Jacob Weisberg
Beau Willimon
Brenda Wineapple
Meg Wolitzer

China: Uyghur PEN member, writer and academic Ilham Tohti formally charged with ‘splittism’
China: Uyghur PEN member, writer and academic Ilham Tohti detained; fears for safety