Awarding the Noble Peace Prize to a victim of persecution under Beijing’s rule would do much to justify additional pressure from the international community on China for its rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the daughter of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti said Friday.
Tohti, a former professor of economics at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in the XUAR on Sept. 23, 2014, despite having worked for more than two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
He had been nominated for the Peace Prize, which on Friday was awarded by Norway’s Nobel Committee to the World Food Programme (WFP)—the food-assistance branch of the United Nations and the world's largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and promoting food security.
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service following the announcement of this year’s recipient, Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, congratulated the WFP, saying she hopes the organization can live up to the expectations of a Peace Prize winner and use the award’s recognition to contribute to society.
But she suggested that selecting a winner from the Uyghur diaspora or from Hong Kong would “help make other countries feel more comfortable” confronting China over repression in the XUAR and elsewhere.
China’s policies toward Uyghurs’ in the XUAR have gotten progressively harsher in the six years since Tohti’s jailing, with a re-education program launched in 2017 putting as many as 1.8 million people through a vast network of internment camps, and many inmates now pressed into forced labor.
On Wednesday, the U.K. and Germany led a group of 39 member states in condemning China’s treatment of Uyghurs at the U.N. General Assembly, signaling increasing opposition to Beijing’s policies from the international community.
The countries pointed to “severe restrictions” on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association and expression, as well as on Uyghur culture. They also noted widespread surveillance that “disproportionally continues to target Uyghurs and other minorities,” as more reports emerge of forced labor and forced birth control, including sterilization.
They also expressed “deep concern” about elements of the July 1 Hong Kong National Security Law, which outlaws words and deeds deemed by the authorities to constitute separatism, subversion or terrorism, or collusion with a foreign power. Under the law, certain cases can be transferred for prosecution to the Chinese mainland.
The condemnation marked a significant increase in the number of countries willing to stand up to China’s threats of cutting off trade with nations that support such statements. A similar resolution last year received only 23 backers.
But Ilham noted that “there are still more than 100 countries out there that remain silent” about what is happening in the region.
“That's why I really think if this award was given to a Uyghur or even a Hong Konger, or anyone who is suffering from the Chinese regime, I believe it would help the international community to feel more comfortable with speaking out and have less concern when they want to show support to our cause,” she said.
Ilham said that if the award had been given to her father, who in 2006 launched the Uyghur Online website as an advisory platform for him and other Uyghur intellectuals to promote voices from within their community, “it would also help stop the Chinese government from continuing to call the Uyghurs violence supporters and extremists, because that's not who Uyghurs are.”
Tohti has endured mistreatment in prison and has only been granted limited visits by family members. Ilham has told RFA that she hadn’t heard anything about her father since 2017, and is unsure of his condition or if he has been transferred to another facility.
The former professor had given a lengthy statement by phone to RFA before he was detained by Chinese authorities from his Beijing home, expressing concern that he would be tortured and forced to make a confession, or even face the prospect of death while in custody.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) awarded 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.
After Tohti was shortlisted for the seventh Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in August last year, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a press conference that PACE should “withdraw the nomination and stop supporting separatist and terrorist forces.”
In addition to winning the Sakharov Prize, the Vaclav Havel prize, and the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, Tohti was awarded 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 was also a nominee for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Speaking to RFA on Friday, Ilham said she appreciates the recognition her father has received, bringing attention to both his case and that of the Uyghur people in general.
“I really hope my father will receive the Peace Prize one day and that he will be able to pick it up in person,” she added.
Reported for RFA’s Uyghur Service and translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.