Economist Ilham Tohti, from China's predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region, speaks to students at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing in 2009.  (Elizabeth Dalziel/AP)

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 Her stepmother has been put under constant surveillance at home, while Tohti’s eldest son, now 8, has become withdrawn and introverted, she testified.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.”


Guzulnur, wife of detained Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti cries as she bids farewell to friends on Monday before leaving on a flight for Urumqi at the airport in Beijing. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

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.


Jewher Ilham testifies at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Capitol Hill on April 8, 2014. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Before leaving for the United States, Jewher attended a nearby high school close their home, boarding during weekdays and returning home only at weekends, so she could concentrate on her studies and not be disrupted if police paid the family a visit. Still, her father passed by her school to see her most days. If he truly wanted to advocate ethnic hatred, she argued, “why would he let me stay in a Chinese school, where all of my classmates, all of my friends were Han Chinese? He would have sent me back to Xinjiang.”

Similarly, she said, he did not believe separatism was a realistic goal for Xinjiang, and instead wanted to work towards a better relationship between Han and Uighur people, and with other ethnic minorities. Indeed, the fact that so many people from around the world, as well as many Han Chinese, have condemned his arrest and tried to help, just shows the kind of man he is, she said.

Tohti, now 44, was just 2-years-old when his father died in China’s Cultural Revolution, in circumstances that remain unclear even to the family. Ironically, both of his brothers and their children work as officials in China’s vast public security system in Xinjiang, although they have all come under pressure because of his work, according to an autobiographical essay he wrote in 2011.

Jewher believes she was only allowed to leave for the United States last year because of a police error, and that if she ever returned to China, she would not be allowed to leave again. Her father was not given access to his lawyers until June, and the family prevented from visiting, or even sending in books and photographs. Still, she says, they can have no regrets. “I am very worried about him on the one hand, but I am still proud of him. I still think he was doing the right thing.”