Uyghur Woman Fights to Free Dad Jailed for Life After Barely Escaping China Herself

February 8, 2020 Updated: February 9, 2020
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Prior to Feb. 2, 2013, Jewher Ilham was a freshman at college looking forward to spending time with her new friends in school. She never imagined that a one-month planned trip to the United States would turn her world upside down and lead her on a path to advocate for her father, an ethnic Uyghur who was sentenced to jail in China.

Jewher’s father, Ilham Tohti, was a Uyghur economics professor in Beijing who ran a website called “Uighur Biz” that attempted to form a bridge between the Uyghurs in China and the Han Chinese. In 2013, he was invited to Indiana University as a visiting scholar; however, the Chinese authorities didn’t allow him to pass through immigration on the day he and his daughter were due to board the plane at Beijing Airport. The Chinese communist regime later sentenced him to life imprisonment on charges of inciting separatism—a charge that Ilham said was unfounded.

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University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti before a classroom lecture in Beijing on June 12, 2010. (©Getty Images | FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP)

“He had never mentioned a word about separating the country,” Jewher told China Uncensored.

Forced to Start Anew

Prior to the occurrence of this incident, Ilham always thought her father was “being paranoid, suspicious all the time” that Chinese authorities could be monitoring him. The truth finally set in after her father told her at the airport to leave for the United States without him.

“Look around you. This country is treating you like this way. Do you still want to stay here?” she recalled him telling her.

“At that moment, everything started making sense,” Jewher further added.

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Jewher Ilham, daughter of Ilham Tohti, at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 8, 2014. (©Getty Images | SAUL LOEB/AFP)

Jewher boarded the plane for the United States even though she didn’t want to leave. However, coming to America alone wasn’t easy, as a nervous Ilham was nearly sent back to China—her visa was tied to her father, and because she didn’t know English, she couldn’t explain to the immigration officers about her situation. After waiting for over 30 hours without food, water, and sleep, Ilham remembered she carried a name card of “Elliot Sperling,” the man who invited her father to the university. With Sperling’s help, she managed to enter the country.

Once in the United States, she tried to check on her father’s situation. She got in touch with him after three days and was told that he had been beaten and interrogated. During their conversation, he also made a decision for her—one that Jewher still thinks is “ridiculous”—to stay in the United States.

“No matter what I said in the future, no matter what I tell you, if I say come back, I don’t mean it. Stay there. I would rather you sweep the street in the U.S. than you coming back here,” he told her.

Jewher couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Before coming to the United States, she was enjoying her new college life in China and was suddenly told to start life from scratch. Despite this, she listened to her father’s advice and later attended school in the United States with the help of Sperling.

“Elliot helped me a lot and he took me under his wing,” Jewher said. “He took care of me, he treated me like his own daughter.”

Life Sentence and Xinjiang’s Re-education Camps

In 2014, Ilham was sentenced to life imprisonment. At that time, Jewher managed to write a letter to her father and send a picture of it via his lawyer. However, that was her last message to him. Three years later, in 2017, Jewher’s family in China lost contact with Ilham and since then have no news of where he is. It was also the same year when the Chinese regime started the Xinjiang re-education camps.

Unable to know the whereabouts of her dad makes Jewher worried. She hopes that the Chinese regime could provide some form of evidence to show that her dad is still alive.

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Jewher Ilham delivers a speech during the award ceremony for her father’s 2019 European Parliament’s Sakharov human rights prize at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Dec. 18, 2019. (©Getty Images | FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP)

The Chinese regime has claimed that the camps, which were said to be detaining about a million people including Uyghurs and ethnic minorities, were to “educate and transform” those who were considered to be at risk of the “three evil forces” of “extremism, separatism, and terrorism.”

According to media reports, Tashpolat Tiyip, the former president of Xinjiang University, was believed to have been convicted of “separatism” in 2017 after being “forcibly disappeared,” as per Amnesty International.

He had been detained on charges of corruption and bribery and was secretly sentenced to death. However, the Chinese regime denied this. According to a report from BBC, friends said that the professor was going to Europe to attend a conference and form a co-operation with a German University in 2017 when all of a sudden he was stopped at Beijing Airport and sent back to Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. After that, he never returned home.

Former detainees have been stepping forward to inform of the human rights abuses happening in the re-education camps.

A former detainee, Gulbakhar Jalilova, told The Epoch Times in 2018 that she had seen how Uyghur women “passed out from being beaten so hard, and had nails put into their fingers to make blood pour out.”

Jewher told Family Research Council that “Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, even human rights lawyers” are being locked up.

Two survivors told Radio Free Asia in 2019 that Han nationals and Falun Gong practitioners were also detained in the camps.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual discipline introduced in China in 1992. It consists of moral teachings and five exercises, including meditation. The Chinese regime launched a brutal crackdown on the practice on July 20, 1999, after the number of people practicing it reached at least 70 million to 100 million, more than the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) membership.

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A woman practices the exercises of the Falun Gong practice near Battery Park in Manhattan during World Falun Dafa Day on May 13, 2015. (©The Epoch Times | Benjamin Chasteen)

Since the persecution began, numerous Falun Gong practitioners were arrested, detained, and subjected to brutal torture. It has also been confirmed that more than 4,000 practitioners have died in the persecution.

The Path to Seeking Freedom

After Jewher’s dad lost his freedom, she decided to embark on a journey to seek his release. In July 2019, she got the opportunity to meet President Donald Trump at the White House, together with other survivors of religious persecution. She was also invited to speak at the UN General Assembly in September.

On Dec. 18, she accepted the 2019 Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament on her father’s behalf for the defense of human rights.

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European Parliament President David-Maria Sassoli (L) stands next to Jewher Ilham, who is holding a portrait of her father during the award ceremony for his 2019 European Parliament’s Sakharov human rights prize. (©Getty Images | FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP)

“I have been trying to do anything that could possibly help my father and my community. I don’t know if it’s helping, I don’t know if anything would help. I just don’t want to regret,” Ilham said.

Jewher has also been working on a documentary film called “Static & Noise” that covers the persecution of Uyghurs and other groups such as Christians who have been suppressed by the Chinese regime.

Despite all that she is doing, Jewher said she’s not against her home country nor the Chinese people.

“A few of my best friends are actually Chinese but I do [sic] against the Chinese government’s policy towards certain groups, like the Uyghurs, like the Christian minorities in China, the Han Chinese group, the people who are suppressed by the Chinese government,” she said.

And while others might connect her activities to politics, Jewher begs to differ.

“It is a humanitarian issue, and it is not about politics, not about religion,” Jewher explained.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m Uyghur, if I’m Chinese, if I am American, if I’m from any other country, from any other ethnicity or any other religion [sic] group, this is not about one person anymore. This is about entire us,” she added.