Jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was honored on Thursday at a ceremony in The Hague, where he was awarded Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom, given in absentia and accepted on his behalf by a rights group advocating for his release.
An outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, Tohti was charged with promoting ethnic separatism and was handed a life sentence by a Chinese court on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day trial.
Awarding the prize on behalf of Liberal International (LI), a federation of 100 liberal and progressive parties and affiliates founded in 1947, LI Human Rights Committee chairman Markus Loening said Tohti had fought for democracy and the rule of law in China “with the sharp words of an intellectual and the warm heart of a humanist.”
“The Chinese government should feel ashamed,” Loening said at the Nov. 30 award ceremony. “It is not protecting the rights of its citizens but instead [is] putting them behind bars as soon as they speak up for human rights.”
The granting of today’s award reminds the world that Ilham Tohti, and the Uyghur people themselves, are suffering under Chinese Communist rule, Ilham Tohti Initiative co-founder Marie Holzman said in accepting the prize on Tohti’s behalf.
“Receiving this award today, endorsed by liberal political parties from around the world, is confirmation that the Chinese government can no longer sustain the pretense that no one cares about Ilham Tohti,” Holzman said.
Addressing the gathering at the ceremony by video, Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham called her father a man “known for his moderate positions and his desire to see different ethnic groups living together peacefully.”
“My father has been unyielding in speaking out for the Uyghur people’s human rights and their dignity,” she said.
'A powerful response'
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service, Dolkun Isa—president of the Munich-based exile World Uyghur Congress—called Tohti’s award “a powerful response to China’s brutal repression of the Uyghur people.”
“[It] is a clear testament that the international community is fully aware of the plight of the Uyghur people in East Turkestan,” Isa said, using another name for the Uyghur people’s traditional homeland now claimed by Beijing as Xinjiang.
“The fundamental issue here is not just the case of Ilham Tohti,” added Enver Can, a founder of Ilham Tohti Initiative. “It is a case of the Uyghur people’s legitimate demands for freedom and human rights,” Can said.
“That is why he is in prison now.”
Also speaking to RFA in an interview after the award ceremony, Markus Loening rejected China’s description of Tohti as a terrorist.
“I cannot understand why the Chinese government needs to put people down, defame them, and say things about them that are simply not true,” Loening said.
“They are putting in jail some of the best people that China actually has,” he said.
Ilham Tohti's sentencing in 2014 was condemned by then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who called himself "deeply disturbed" by China's move to jail the well-respected Uyghur scholar and rights advocate.
In addition to today's award, Tohti has also received the Barbara Goldsmith "Freedom to Write" Award from the PEN American Center in 2014 and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016.
Reported by Kurban Niyaz for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Richard Finney.