The European Parliament on Thursday awarded jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti with the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for “exceptional individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms,” calling on Beijing to set him free.
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 northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) on Sept. 23, 2014, despite having worked for more than two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
The European Parliament said Thursday it had selected Tohti, 49, for the Sakharov Prize—its top human rights award—for “fighting for the rights of China’s Uyghur minority” in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have detained some 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
In a statement announcing the award, European Parliament President David Sassoli said that Tohti had “dedicated his life” to advocating on behalf of his ethnic group.
“Despite being a voice of moderation and reconciliation, he was sentenced to life in prison following a show trial in 2014,” Sassoli said.
“By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China.”
Tohti has endured mistreatment in prison and has only been granted limited visits by family members. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, last month told RFA’s Uyghur Service that she hadn’t heard anything about Tohti since 2017, and is unsure of his condition or if he has been transferred to another facility.
Tohti had given a lengthy statement by phone to RFA’s Uyghur Service reporter Mihray Abdilim before he was detained by Chinese authorities on Jan. 15, 2014 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.
Speaking to RFA on Thursday, Ilham expressed appreciation to the European Parliament for its decision to honor her father, calling the award a win “for the entire Uyghur community” and a recognition of the challenges it faces.
“I am so proud and grateful that my father’s efforts to bring peace and harmony to the Uyghur people is being recognized worldwide,” she said.
“I also hope this award will motivate other countries to speak up and take action against the atrocities the Uyghur people are facing today.”
Enver Can, the director of the Ilham Tohti Initiative, also welcomed the award, calling it a recognition of Tohti’s “courage, bravery, and selflessness,” as well as “an international show of compassion for Uyghurs.”
“The democratic world community made clear its disbelief of China’s slanderous claims against the Uyghur people,” he said.
“On the contrary, it demonstrated its support for the rightful cause of the Uyghur people, and showed it they will not stand idly by as China conducts a campaign of oppression against the Uyghurs.”
‘An inspiration’ to Uyghurs
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
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.
Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) exile group, on Thursday applauded the European Parliament’s decision, calling the life and ideals of Tohti “an inspiration to the Uyghur people.”
“His treatment was a precursor to the crimes against humanity that the Chinese government have been subjecting the Uyghur people since then,” he added.
In an accompanying statement, the WUC said that Tohti’s arrest and imprisonment marked “a tragic turning point in how the Chinese government has reacted to critical voices,” leading to Beijing’s “absolute refusal to consider the concerns of the Uyghur people.”
The WUC urged China to immediately release Tohti and others held in detention in the country.
The writers' group PEN America said Thursday that it was “deeply gratified” that the European Parliament had bestowed the Sakharov Prize on Tohti, who it had honored with its 2014 PEN/Barabara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of Free Expression Programs, said that the European Parliament’s decision a recognition of Tohti’s dedication to human rights, and a statement that the world is watching the XUAR, as well as the “brutal repression” of the Uyghur people by the Chinese state.
“While Tohti's courageous, undaunted fight for freedom and equality has made him a target for suppression by the Chinese government, for those everywhere who fight for liberty, it makes him a beacon—an inspiration in a time of growing repression around the world,” she said, calling for his immediate and unconditional freedom.
Earlier this month, 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.
Tohti 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 Balkan region of southeastern Europe to promote reconciliation—at ceremony in Strasbourg, France on the opening day of PACE’s autumn plenary session.
After Tohti was shortlisted for the seventh Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in August, 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 is also a nominee for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Tohti had been shortlisted for the Sakharov Prize along with murdered Brazilian political activist and human rights defender Marielle Franco, Native Brazilian leader and environmentalist Chief Raoni, and Brazilian environmentalist and human rights defender Claudelice Silva dos Santos, along with The Restorers—a group of five students from Kenya who developed an app to help girls deal with female genital mutilation.
The European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents will present the award, which includes a prize of 50,000 euros (U.S. $55,500) at a ceremony in Strasbourg on Dec. 18.
Reported and translated by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Joshua Lipes.