Vigil for Ilham Tohti follows presentation of Bellwether award

Barbara Kingsolver joined hundreds who gathered in support of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur writer and scholar recently sentenced to life in prison in China on unfounded charges of separatism. The candlelight vigil in New York City Sept. 29 followed the 2014 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony, where Kingsolver had presented this year’s Bellwether Prize to Ron Childress.

Kingsolver read a haunting statement from Tohti at the vigil, which took place just outside The New School Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street. The statement, written in 2013 to be published in the event of his arrest, foreshadows Tohti’s later imprisonment and persecution, and avows Tohti’s commitment to defend and uphold human rights even as the Chinese government closed in.

The following are excerpts from Tohti’s statement that she read:

“There is a lot of tension around here. In the past few days, I have been under constant surveillance by police vehicles and national security police officers… I have realized that I don’t have too many good days ahead of me and I have a feeling that they [the Chinese government] may not have the best intentions in dealing with my situation. Therefore, I feel that it is necessary for me to leave a few words behind before I no longer have the ability to do so.

“I would like to emphasize that currently, there are no physical marks or bruises on my body. About two months ago, the school performed physical examinations on all the teachers, including myself. The results of my physical examinations have been recorded on their computers and were sent to all major hospitals in Beijing. They should be available in their archives… If I do pass away in the near future, know that it is not because of natural illness and it certainly will not be suicide. I am a Uyghur, a father, and a righteous man. I do not commend suicide and neither does the Uyghur culture. Therefore it is impossible that I will ever commit suicide.

“I will never say anything that is against my morals and principles, nor will I ever say anything that may harm my people [Uyghurs]. If I say anything that deviates from my morals after my arrest, know that those are not my words. Any word that is at conflict with my morals or brings harm to the Uyghur people would most likely have been fabricated by the Chinese government… Regardless of the interrogation strategy or the torture method, regardless of what body parts I am about to lose, know that I will never speak words that will work against the interest of Uyghurs, nor will I ever betray the Uyghurs.

“The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path. I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs… I have relentlessly appealed for equality for Uyghurs in regards to their individuality, religion, and culture. I have persistently demanded justice from the Chinese government. However, I have never pursued a violent route and I have never joined a group that utilized violence.

“Many of my friends have been arrested lately. The number of police officers around me has been gradually increased. They have been watching me even on school campus.

“I have always led by example through advocating for diplomatic and peaceful ways to request justice and equality. I believe that Beijing is the ideal place for education, and I believe that this city is a key to achieving equality and justice.

“Without the understanding and support of all of the 1.3 billion people in China, it would be extremely difficult for us to achieve our human rights goals. One of my foremost objectives so far has been to introduce and explain who we really are to the Han Chinese population, and this is how I have gained so many friends and supporters who are Han Chinese.

“I have never spoken like this before, but I am almost confident that the Chinese government is trying to get rid of me this time.”