More than a dozen bipartisan U.S. lawmakers have nominated jailed Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti to receive the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, citing his commitment to peaceful interethnic dialogue between members of his ethnic group and China’s Han Chinese majority.
An outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day show trial on charges of promoting separatism.
The court decision cited Tohti’s criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies, his interviews with overseas media outlets, and his work founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which was shut down by Chinese authorities in 2014.
In a letter dated Jan. 29, a group of 13 U.S. lawmakers including Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo to consider Tohti for the prestigious award, saying that amid an ongoing crackdown in the XUAR, “voices like Professor Tohti’s are needed more than ever.”
The lawmakers cited the XUAR’s network of political “re-education camps,” where authorities are believed to have detained up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas throughout the region since April 2017 “in possibly the largest mass internment of an ethnic minority population in the world today.”
They also highlighted “an unprecedented campaign of pervasive surveillance” that includes mandatory “homestays” by Communist Party officials in Uyghur and Kazakh homes in the XUAR, “highly disproportionate rates of arrest” and detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the region, and a targeting of intellectuals and other prominent members of the Uyghur community.
In 2011, high-ranking Chinese officials had sought out Tohti’s advice on Beijing’s policies in the XUAR, but rejected a paper he wrote detailing the difficulties faced by Uyghurs in the region and how they could be addressed.
Authorities in the XUAR went on to institute a crackdown on intellectuals and others voices of dissent in 2013, following the appointment of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Repressive tactics in the XUAR grew to include detentions in the region’s vast network of re-education camps, which Beijing initially denied the existence of, but which XUAR chairman Shohrat Zakir told China’s official Xinhua news agency in October 2018 were an effective tool to protect the country from terrorism and provide vocational training for Uyghurs.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
In Tuesday’s letter, lawmakers said that Tohti knew the risks he was taking by speaking and writing openly about ethnic policy and development in the XUAR, and suggested that his advice could have helped to avoid the state of conflict the region is facing today.
“Professor Tohti’s courageous work embodied precisely the kind of insight and guidance on interethnic problems that should be embraced by Chinese officials who have, instead, chosen to silence Professor Tohti and to embark on a massive crackdown on Uyghur intellectuals, the broader Uyghur community, and other Muslim groups in the XUAR,” the letter said.
The lawmakers drew comparison between Tohti’s case and that of late Nobel Peace Laureate and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, who died from late-stage liver cancer in 2017 while serving an 11-year jail term for subversion.
“Like Liu, Professor Tohti is a determined champion of human rights, and his life’s work demonstrates that freedom, due process, liberty, and the rule of law are not foreign ideas in China, but ones that eventually should be a part of a more peaceful and prosperous future for China and the world,” they said, adding that “there is no one more deserving of the Committee’s recognition in 2019.”
On Wednesday, president of the Ilham Tohti Initiative Enver Can expressed his appreciation to the 13 lawmakers, calling Tohti’s nomination “of historic significance” and a critical part of a broader push by rights groups and the international community to free the professor.
“The official nomination by members of the U.S. Congress at this historic juncture, in which the Uyghur people are facing policies of ethnic cleansing, is the first giant step for securing the release of Professor Tohti, who peacefully struggled for the rights and freedoms of Uyghurs,” he said.
“His nomination … will shine a spotlight on his condition and the horrible difficulties endured by the Uyghur people.”
Earlier this month, in an open letter marking the fifth anniversary of his arrest, 132 scholars and 18 civil society groups called on China’s government to immediately release Tohti and other notable academics held in re-education camps, saying his case represents “a warning shot directed at Uyghur intellectuals and activists in China more broadly.”
“The Chinese government has evidently failed to yield to his advice and now operates one of the most obtrusive surveillance states in the world while arbitrarily locking up Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in political indoctrination facilities,” the letter said.
Ilham Tohti was awarded Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom in a ceremony held in absentia in The Hague in November 2017. He was also the recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016 and the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award from the PEN America Center in 2014.
Reported and translated by Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.