IU voices “deep concerns” over the conviction and sentencing of Uighur scholar

Ilham Tohti and IU professor Elliot Sperling in 2012.

Ilham Tohti and IU professor Elliot Sperling in 2012.

This morning, the Indiana University community joined the rest of the world in expressing deep concern over the conviction of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti and the life sentence handed down by the Chinese government.

In February 2013, Tohti was in the process of traveling to IU as a visiting scholar when authorities detained him before boarding the flight with his daughter. With his encouragement, she boarded the flight and today is a student at IU and an exponent for her father.

In January, Tohti was arrested and charged with advocating separatism and inciting ethnic hatred, criticizing the Chinese government and voicing support for terrorism.

In July, Elliot Sperling, an associate professor of Central Eurasian studies at IU Bloomington and leading scholar on Tibet, was denied entry into China after traveling there with a valid entry visa. He suspected it had to do with his support for Tohti.

“This is so thorough and transparent a miscarriage of justice as to take one’s breath away,” Sperling told The Washington Post. “By no stretch of the imagination — even the authoritarian imagination — could this be considered a fair trial. The severity of the sentence stands in inverse proportion to the substance of the charges.”

Formerly a professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing, Tohti is one of the best-known scholars on Uighur issues and a moderate voice in the conflicts between the Turkic Muslims and Han Chinese in western Xinjiang Province. His website, Uyghur Online, which was designed to promote understanding, reportedly was used against him in court.

Three months after his arrest, in April, Tohti was named winner of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, which is given to writers anywhere who fight for freedom of expression.

Gardner Bovingdon

Gardner Bovingdon

Another IU Uighur analyst, Gardner Bovingdon, associate professor of Central Eurasian studies, told Voice of America today that the life sentence was the second-worst outcome, second only to the death penalty.

“I absolutely agree with Secretary (John) Kerry it (the sentence) sends precisely the wrong signal to Uighurs, the people throughout China and the world about its attitude toward human rights, toward peaceful dissent and toward the promotion of dialogue to resolve longstanding problems,” Bovingdon told VOA.

Sperling and Bovingdon also are faculty in IU’s School of Global and International Studies.

While the world’s news media has turned to IU experts to offer perspectives on Tohti’s conviction and sentencing, IU also has used its official voice about these issues. IU issued a statement today about Tohti and about concerns that some IU faculty members are finding it difficult to travel to China for “the purposes of research exchange.”

It reads in part:

“Indiana University joins the United States government, as well as those of several European Union countries, and human rights organizations worldwide in expressing its deep concern over the conviction and life sentence handed down to prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti by the Chinese government this week. Likewise, the university echoes those countries and organizations in urging the Chinese government to reconsider Tohti’s conviction.”


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