The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has awarded jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti the 2019 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, named after the Czech playwright and politician who opposed Soviet communism, making him the first dissident from China to receive the prize.
Tohti, 49, was jointly awarded the prize, which honors outstanding civil society action in defense of human rights, along with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR)—a group that brings together youths from across the Balkans to promote reconciliation—on Monday at ceremony in Strasbourg, France on the opening day of PACE’s autumn plenary session.
The award of 60,000 euros (U.S. $65,400)—split between the two recipients—was accepted on Tohti’s behalf by Enver Can of the Ilham Tohti Initiative, who said that while the prize honors individuals and organizations, “it also recognizes a whole population in giving the entire Uyghur people a voice,” and vowed to continue efforts to free the jailed professor.
PACE President Liliane Maury Pasquier said that action by Tohti and the YIHR “carries a message of hope for all those who aspire to build a better world, one where the dignity, rights and basic liberties of everyone are respected and guaranteed.”
“Today, as we show our recognition and support for them, we also send a message of hope to the millions of people they represent and for whom they work,” she said, adding that “human rights have no frontiers.”
Tohti, a former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison following his conviction on a charge of “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) on Sept. 23, 2014.
The jailed academic had worked for more than two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, and his award comes amid reports that Chinese authorities have held more than 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since April 2017.
‘Answer to China’
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service on Monday, Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, welcomed the award and expressed appreciation to Europe-based rights groups—particularly the Ilham Tohti Initiative—for advancing her father’s case.
Enver Can called the Vaclav Havel Prize “tremendous recognition of Ilham Tohti’s efforts to help his people.”
“This award is a powerful answer to China by the democratic world for silencing the voice of Ilham Tohti and repressing the Uyghur people,” he told RFA.
“This award also highlights the attention paid by the free world to the horrific situation of the Uyghur people. I hope it will give Professor Tohti the strength and patience to carry on, and the Uyghur people the hope and inspiration to keep fighting for their freedom.”
After Tohti was shortlisted for the seventh Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize last month, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a press conference that PACE should “withdraw the nomination and stop supporting separatist and terrorist forces.”
Tohti was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014, the Martin Ennals Award in 2016, the Liberal International Prize for Freedom in 2017, and Freedom House’s Freedom Award in 2019. The jailed professor is also a nominee for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Earlier this month, the Renew Europe political group of the European Parliament named Tohti as a finalist for the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for “exceptional individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Previous Havel prizewinners have included Russian human rights activist Oyub Titiev (2018), Turkish judicial independence campaigner Murat Arslan (2017)—both of whom were in jail when their prize was awarded—and Yazidi human rights activist Nadia Murad, who escaped ISIS confinement in northern Iraq.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.