BEIJING – In February 2013, Jewher Ilham was due to accompany her father to the United States for a month, to help him settle in as he took up a new job as a visiting scholar at Indiana University. But as they prepared to leave China, her father, the prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, was detained, beaten and forbidden to leave the country.
Jewher decided to go to Indiana anyway, and then to stay in the United States, enrolling as a student at the university where her father was supposed to teach. Lonely at first, and struggling to improve her English, she spoke to her father by Skype every day: until, less than a year after her departure, her father was once again taken in custody. “At first it was really, really hard here, and just when I got used to it, they detained my father, and the tough times began again,” she said.
This time it was serious. In January 2014, Ilham Tohti was taken from his home in Beijing by a large group of police, and moved to a detention center in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western region of Xinjiang. Charged with separatism and inciting ethnic hatred, he has been shackled and abused in detention during much of the past few months, according to his lawyer. His trial begins on Wednesday, and, with a guilty verdict almost inevitable, has already been denounced by Human Rights Watch as a travesty of justice.
In April, Jewher testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China about the constant harassment her father and their family have faced over many years. She told of how she came home one day to an empty house, to find that her father, stepmother and two young brothers had been sent away by the authorities to the island of Hainan: how one of her young brothers was prevented from registering at school and denied a passport in 2012, and how security personnel rammed her father’s car in 2013 and threatened to kill the entire family. Her stepmother has been put under constant surveillance at home, while Tohti’s eldest son, now 8, has become withdrawn and introverted, she testified. “Having witnessed our father being taken away, he now has nightmares.”
In a telephone interview from Indiana on Tuesday, Jewher called the charges against her father “ridiculous,” and completely out of character. While many parents in China hit their children to educate them, Jewher said he father had never hit her and didn’t believe violence could solve problems. “How could he advocate violence? He was very moderate, he would try to help people — he didn’t want people to fight.”
A strict but caring father, he would sing and draw with her as a child. A passionate teacher, he would invite students to dine at the family home most weekends, she said, while believing that Uighur students faced discrimination and needed more opportunities in the Chinese education system.