PEN SA Celebrates International Mother Language Day

21 Feb 2015
Ilham Tohti

‘The right to speak, teach and learn in one’s own mother tongue is a fundamental human right. Language is key to knowing and expressing both one’s culture and one’s self. To deny that right is to erase part of the diversity of human experience and the uniqueness of individuals and communities. PEN South Africa both celebrates and works to protect linguistic diversity in South Africa stands together with PEN International to condemn the treatment of Ilham Tohti. MARGIE ORFORD – PRESIDENT, PEN SA

On International Mother Language Day PEN Calls on China to Free Ilham Tohti

On 21 February 2015, International Mother Language Day, PEN calls for the immediate and unconditional release of academic and Uyghur PEN Ilham Tohti.

Ilham Tohti is a writer and academic from China’s Uyghur minority. He was arrested in January 2014, charged with ‘splitism’.

Tohti is a public intellectual from China’s Uyghur minority and one the world’s foremost scholars on Uyghur issues. Arrested in January 2014, charged with ‘splitism’ in July 2014, and convicted following an unfair trial on 23 September 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of all his property. Tohti’s appeal against his conviction and sentence was rejected in November 2014.

Tohti has never promoted violence or separatism. In 2006, he co-founded the website Uyghur Online, aimed at promoting understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. However, his criticism of the Chinese authorities for their heavy-handed treatment of the Uyghur minority made him the target of frequent harassment. Following his initial arrest, the Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi alleged that Tohti had been using the website as a platform to recruit followers.

PEN International first began working on Tohti’s case in 2009, following his detention for speaking out about ethnic unrest that broke out in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), on 5 July 2009. Initially placed under house arrest, he was later transferred to an unknown location where he was kept incommunicado before being released six weeks later. Further harassment followed, including periods spent under house arrest.

Tohti is a member of Uyghur PEN and received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014. He was an honorary Empty Chair at PEN International’s world congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in 2014. Several of his students, arrested at the same time as Tohti, were also convicted of ‘splitism’ and were handed prison sentences of between three and five years.