Tohti, the student detained unjustly

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Tohti, the student detained unjustly - What's happening in East Turkistan

Tohti Tunyaz, the Uyghur student who had been studying in Japan, went back to China in February 1998 to gather research data for his doctorate thesis and he got detained by Ministry of State Security in Urumqi. In March 2000, he was found guilty of 'inciting national disunity' and 'stealing state secrets for foreign persons' and sentenced to 11 years in prison with additional 2 years' deprivation of political rights. He is still serving time in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Prison No.3 in Urumqi.

Tohti was born in 1959 in Baicheng County in Kashgar of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He graduated Central Institute of Nationalities majoring history in 1982. He became a member of the Ethnic Committee of the National People's Congress, and pursued research on the history and cultures of ethnic minorities in various locations in order to communicate ethnic voices to the central government, and serve as reference for the formulation of ethnic policies and legislative activities. Tohti was also a secretary of Saypiddin Azizi, executive of Republic of East Turkistan and later became cadreman of Chinese Communist Party representing Xinjiang, and he gained credibility from Saypiddin Azizi.

He initially aimed to be government official of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to support the development in the hometown, but he decided to do research on ethnic policy and he became a guest researcher of Rikkyo University in 1990. Subsequently, He became a researcher of The Toyo Bunko The Oriental Library and stayed in Japan until 1993. His interest in history of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region became larger finding the rich historical materials that he could not gain in China. He collected the research materials from countries and published a book in China in 1995. It was written in Mandarin, not Uyghur language, because he wanted to tell the Han people, the largest ethnic group of China, about the Uyghur people. He has also written papers on history and culture of Uyghurs'.
After the 3 years in Japan, he returned to the Ethnic Affairs Commission but he started to hope to gain history doctorate in Japan considering being government officials or politician was not the only way to support his ethnos. Though he asked the executives to send him to Japan, his request was rejected. In 1995, he resigned from work and enrolled in Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology of Tokyo University. His research topics were Chinese ethnic policy and Uyghur history. He went around the world to collect data and documents.

Chinese authorities suspected his activities and on short return to home, his father said to him 'The cadremen here visited and said many things about you. What are you doing over there in Japan?'. Tohti had passed the bar exam in China and he was confident he did not violate any law so he replied 'I am studying in Japan and I have never done anything wrong. Please don't worry, it is not a crime to study'. In February 1998, he left Japan for China temporarily to collect data for this thesis saying 'I'll be back in 3 weeks'.

Tohti was detained in Ministry of State Security in Urumqi during the trip and he was arrested officially in April. Rabiye, the wife who was living in Japan at that time, returned to Xinjiang to look for her husband and found him detained. Their house in Beijing was worked over and all the belongings including passbooks and bank cards were forfeited. Rabiye pleaded the public security to hand back the living expenses as she had 2 children to support, but the security told her to borrow the money from someone and turned around. She was questioned over many things about the life in Japan; how they lived in Japan, how they gained the money, who their close friends were, who they contacted often, etc. Though she replied that they survived on the scholarship and part-time jobs and they never had connection with any organization, the officials made up a imaginary Japanese organization and said that Tohti was a spy contacting the organization. He was charged with spying in Intermediate people's court.

In March 1999, the trial was held in Urumqi Intermediate people's court. It was a secret trial and no family member was allowed to sit in on. He was found guilty of 'inciting national disunity' and 'stealing state secrets for foreign persons' and sentenced to 11 years in prison with additional two years' deprivation of political rights. Though Tohti immediately appealed to High people's court, he was again found guilty of 'inciting national disunity' and 'stealing state secrets'. The change of the accusation from 'stealing state secrets for foreign persons' to 'stealing state secrets' implies that they could not prove Tohti's linkage with foreign organization.
Despite the change of accusation, the sentence remained still.

'Inciting national disunity' was charged on Tohti for planning to write and publish a book called 'Silent Uyghur Rebellion'. Once there was a plan for him to publish a book about Uyghur history and culture but the plan had been a dead issue. Authorities pointed a notebook forfeited from Tohti's house in Beijing was the draft of the book and it incited the disunity. However he used that notebook when he was working for Ethnic Committee and what he had written in the notebook was the things that he was to report to his boss. As the notebook was not disclosed, Tohti's lawyer was not able to ascertain the content. Whatever the notebook contains, charge of sedition should not be made citing unreleased text. He was found guilty and sentenced to 7 years inprisonment and 2 years deprivation of political rights.

'Stealing state secrets' was charged over photocopying catalog of historical materials of Republic of East Turkistan that existed from 1944 to 1949, before the Chinese governance. He photocopied the catalogs in archives in Autonomous Region with the help of the assistant working there. There was no corruption or blackmail to gain the information and Tohti never showed the copies to any one. Though formal documents are to be disclosed 30 years after they are created in China, the catalogs Tohti gained were archives that are created more than 50 years ago and he photocopied the catalogs, not the text itself. It is impossible for the copies to be state secrets. Tohti was found guilty of stealing state secrets and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for this.

Sum of the 2 sentences and consideration of the circumstance came up with 11 years imprisonment and 2 years deprivation of political rights. He is now serving his sentence at Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Prison No.3 in Urumqi.
Tohti's research topics were history and culture of Uyghurs' but he was not involved with East Turkistan independence movement. It is said, he was searching for solidarity among the Han people and other ethnic. Though his intention was good, he got arrested and found guilty for knowing and searching things too much.
The activities to release Tohti was firstly carried out by Tokyo University. They have appealed to dignitary of Chinese and United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Supervisors visited Urumqi and Tokyo University has changed the code and extended the absence until he returns.

Though professors of Tokyo University and Chinese government confronted directly at United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the claims of Tokyo University was fully accepted. China was admonished to act accordingly as the conviction of Tohti was extended interpretation of 'state secret' and it was breaching Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Lecturers of Tokyo University approached pen clubs and PEN American Center offered Tohti PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Pen club in Holland also offered Pen-NOVIB Award to Tohti. Amnesty recognized Tohti as Prisoner of conscience in 2002 and started activities to release him.

Rabiye, left in Japan with 2 children, worked for Japanese company and later opened a Uyghur restaurant but strain of worries and other things made her give up on the restaurant. Though she was not hoping independence of East Turkistan, she decided to make a speech on what happened to Tohti at East Turkistan independence event in 2005 to appeal to Japanese mass opinion. However she had to abandon the speech as the Chinese authorities found out what she had planned and visited her family in Uyghur Autonomous Region to put pressure.
She had little income that may cause trouble extending visa only for a year but a company that had been understanding the Chinese ethnic problems and supporting those troubled people offered her a job and she successfully extended her visa for 3 years.

Tohti is supposed to be released on February 2009. However there are little possibilities that the government will issue passport for him, the 'serious criminal'. Being released is not going to conclude the problem.

see also
Meeting to require Tohti's Returning to University

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