The prisoner smiled at his 13-year-old son through a window in the hot meeting room of the No. 3 prison in Urumqi, the provincial capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, one day in August.
“You’ve grown up a lot!” 42-year-old historian Tohti Tunyaz said to his son, who had traveled to northwest China from Japan after being separated from his father for more than four years. The inmate, an ethnic Uighur, was moved to tears seeing that his son had grown taller than himself.
Tohti, a University of Tokyo graduate student who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for inciting separatism, has received support from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International. Those calling for his release have criticized the Japanese government for ignoring his case.
In early 1998, Tohti was busy writing a doctoral dissertation on China’s policies toward ethnic minorities. But after he visited his home in the autonomous region to do research, he disappeared.
Several months later, his Japanese friends received word that he had been detained on charges of “inciting separatism” and “illegally acquiring state secrets.”
These friends could not believe it, recalling that Tohti was well-known for criticizing the Uighur independence movement.
Tohti was sentenced to 11 years by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court in March 1999. He pleaded not guilty, but his conviction was upheld on appeal the following February.
It was not until early this year that news of his imprisonment circulated in some quarters in Japan. Officials of the prestigious University of Tokyo kept the matter secret, claiming Tohti would suffer if an appeal was waged through the news media.
“If my husband were a real believer in independence from China for his home region, he would be ready to risk his life,” said Tohti’s 37-year-old wife, Rabiya, who lives in Japan with their son and 4-year-old daughter. “But the Chinese court’s charges are unjust and intolerable. I should have appealed to the public earlier.”
Industrial designer Yasuko Yamaguchi accompanied Tohti’s son to Urumqi. She helps the family and acts as a guarantor for them in Japan. They also have the support of Tohti’s two professors at the University of Tokyo, Tsugutaka Sato and Mio Kishimoto.
“We have gone too far to give up now,” Yamaguchi said of Tohti’s case.
Rabiya added that, “Without these three, we cannot continue to survive in Japan. “Most Japanese appear to be kind, but when the time comes to do something, they do nothing.”
Both Sato and Kishimoto asked the university to renew Tohti’s doctoral student status in the school of humanities during his imprisonment.
“Tohti’s freedom of research as a scholar must be maintained,” Sato said.
In February 2000, the two professors persuaded the U.N. Human Rights Committee to take up the case, saying the Chinese charges were based on a “misrepresentation of the facts.” They later clashed with Chinese authorities over the allegations at the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The Chinese authorities claimed that Tohti “illegally acquired huge state secrets” with financial support from overseas “separatist groups” and “anti-China organizations” in Japan.
They also accused Tohti of writing and publishing a book titled “The Inside Story of the Silk Road” in 1998 that advocates “ethnic separatism.”
In challenging the allegations at the U.N. committee, Sato denied Tohti published the book, adding he obtained documents for purely academic research purposes and his scholarly activities have no political agenda.
At the end of last year, the committee concluded that the Chinese court’s sentence violates Tohti’s freedom of thought and speech by extended interpretation of “state secrets” and that it violates Article 16 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and stipulations in the International Covenants on Human Rights.
The committee’s official view that Tohti was arbitrarily detained is nonbinding since China did not ratify the treaties. But in August, London-based Amnesty International chose Tohti as a featured Prisoner of Conscience at the request of its Japanese arm.
In contrast to a growing campaign to free Tohti in the international community, support in Japan has failed to gather steam.
The Japanese arm of Amnesty International, set up in 1970, is short of funds as a result of shrinking revenues, including donations, and its membership has decreased to some 7,000 from a peak of around 10,000 in the 1990s.
“Although globalization has made the international community closer, Japanese, particularly the nation’s youth, are increasingly inclined to avoid deep commitments to prevent human rights abuse in other countries,” said Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan.
The government has little to say on the case.
“The Japanese government has no say in (China’s) domestic affairs,” said an official at the Foreign Ministry’s China and Mongolia Division in charge of human rights. “The issue of ethnic minorities is a raw nerve in China. Doing nothing could be useful for (Tohti).”
Yamaguchi and the two professors are angry over the ministry’s apathetic attitude.
Japan and China have agreed to hold bilateral human rights dialogue since Japan ceased pushing China to improve its record at the U.N. Human Rights Committee.
Such talks, which would provide the best place to discuss Tohti, have not been held in two years. Asked why, the Foreign Ministry official said there as been “no coordination of arrangements.”
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