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Free Political Prisoner Ilham Tohti

FILE - Ilham Tohti
FILE - Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti, a member of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group in China.

Throughout this holiday season, the United States government is profiling the cases of prisoners unjustly held around the world and the families they leave behind. The stories of these individuals, said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, "highlight the broader struggle faced by so many families of political prisoners, who have to commemorate countless family occasions with loved ones behind bars."

One of those unjustly imprisoned is Ilham Tohti, a member of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group in China.

Before his arrest, Ilham Tohti was a distinguished professor of economics at Beijing's Minzu University. Tohti was also a voice of reason on Uighur issues, encouraging both the Chinese government and the Uighur community to constructively engage in order to improve relations. Beginning in 2006, Tohti ran a website to foster discussion about the economic, social, and developmental issues Uighurs face. His site also improved cross-cultural understanding between ethnic groups by translating Chinese-language news into Uighur.

In January 2014, Tohti was arrested with seven of his students and accused by Chinese authorities of forming a criminal gang that sought to split Xinjiang from China. In September 2014, after a two-day trial, Tohti was given a life sentence on charges of separatism. Tohti's sentence is one of the harshest handed down to a rights activist in recent years and comes amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent under Chinese President Xi Jinping. Several of the students arrested with Tohti were given lesser sentences after their televised public confessions.

Tohti was tried and imprisoned in Xinjiang, more than 2,000 kilometers from Beijing where his family still lives, making it difficult and expensive for them to see him in brief bi-monthly visits. Mr. Tohti and his family represent thousands of other prisoners unjustly detained around the world and their family members who also suffer as a result. The United States, said Ambassador Power, "call[s] on all governments to release them. Political prisoners should be free to believe. They should be free to be loved. They should be free to be home."