Ilham Tohti and his wife in a photo sent to RFA's Uyghur Service via WeChat on Jan 13, 2014, two days before his detention. RFA
Ilham Tohti Shortlisted for the European Union's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought
  • Tue, 10/08/2019 - 20:17

Oct 08, 2019

Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who has been serving a life sentence in Chinese prison since 2014, has been shortlisted for the prestigous Sakharov prize for freedom of thought. Presented by the European Union, the Sakharov Prize honors outstanding individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought both in Europe and beyond. The UNPO has been extensively campaigning for Mr. Tohti to be awarded the Sakharov Prize, who has also recently been awarded the Vaclav Havel Human rights prize by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This reflects the continued show of support of the international community for the Uyghur people in the face of their hostile oppression by the Communist Party of the Republic of China.

Earlier today, on the 8th of October 2019, Uyghur intellectual and human rights activist, Ilham Toti, was shortlisted for the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, alongside Brazilian environmentalists and human rights defenders, Marielle Franco, Claudelice Silvia dos Santos, and Chief Raoni, and a group of Kenyan student activists against genital mutilation, the Restorers. Mr Tohti, who is a renowned Uyghur human rights defender, economics professor and advocate for the rights of China’s Uyghur minority, has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between the Uyghurs and the Han people. As a result of his efforts, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Chinese Communist Party following a two-day show trial in September 2014.

Following massive Chinese repression in Xinjiang in 2009, Ilham Tohti was taken into custody for posting information about Uyghurs who had been arrested, detained, and forcibly disappeared at the hands of the Chinese authorities. In the subsequent years, he was subjected to periodic house arrests and was barred from leaving the country. Shortly after the July 2009 Urumqi riots, Tohti was detained by the authorities due to his continued criticism of the Chinese government's repressive policies toward Uyghurs in Xinjiang, who are perpetually denied their fundamental human rights, including the right to life, right to freedom from torture, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion and belief.

The Uyghur people have been subjected to unparalleled repression by the Chinese government in the past two years, in what can be described as cultural genocide, due to their unique ethnic and religious identity. Since April 2017, over one million innocent Uyghurs, including women and children, have been arbitrarily detained in a network of internment camps, where they are forced to renounce their ethnic identity, religious beliefs, and pledge loyalty to the Chinese government. Additionally, it has been reported that within these facilities Uyghurs are often subjected to torture and organ harvesting. At present, nearly every family within the Uyghur diaspora has relatives who have forcibly disappeared and are detained in these camps.

For the hundreds and thousands of oppressed Uyghurs, Ilham Tohti was the voice of justice and an example of resilience in the face of severe repression. He is known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations and his vocal advocacy for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China on Uyghur Online, a website hosted by Tohti that discusses various Uyghur issues. Across this platform, Tohti regularly criticized the exclusion of China’s Uyghur population from Chinese development and encouraged greater awareness of the status and degrading treatment of the Uyghur community in Chinese society. For these actions, he was declared a “separatist” by the Chinese state and ultimately sentenced to life imprisonment.

The issue of his unjust imprisonment has been raised on multiple occasions by the European External Action Service, High Representative Federica Mogherini, and by the European Parliament, which passed two urgency resolutions on the issue on October 2018 and April 2019. These two resolutions follow the 2016 urgency resolution on the cases of Ilham Tohti and the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Academy. For his work in the face of adversity, Tohti has been awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2014), the Martin Ennals Award (2016), and the Vaclav Havel Prize for Human Rights (2019). Professor Tohti has also been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ilham Tohti’s case is particularly important given the crucial international and human rights issues on which it touches: exercising the right to freedom of religion and expression in the face of state-directed religious repression, efforts to open lines of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population, and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state. Ilham Tohti’s life and career have exemplified the ideals of Andrei Sakharov and for these reasons he has rightly been shortlisted for the Sakharov Prize.