February 2013. Eighteen-year-old Jewher Ilham headed to the airport in her home city of Beijing, together with her father, Ilham Tohti. The two planned to make their way to Indiana University, where Tohti was invited to be a visiting scholar. Ilham planned to accompany him and spend three weeks in Bloomington.
Ilham was looking forward to the experience, but she didn’t know that the day she would get on that plane would change her life – or that up to the present time, she would not see her father again.
Ilham and Tohti, 50, are Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking, mostly Sunni Muslim minority group in China. Tohti, an economist who lectured at universities, researched relations between Uighurs and Han, the majority Chinese ethnicity. He advised the government to build more hospitals and schools in Xinjiang, where Uighurs are concentrated.
But perhaps most importantly, he established the website “Uighur Online” in 2006, a forum for discussion of issues important to his community, and advocated for regional autonomy laws in China.