The European Parliament has named jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti as a finalist for the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for "exceptional individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Tohti, a former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison following his conviction on a charge of “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) on Sept. 23, 2014.
The progressive Renew Europe political group of the European Parliament said Wednesday it had nominated Tohti for the Sakharov Prize for his more than two decades of work to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
“By being such a fearless voice fighting for human rights and fundamental freedoms in China, Ilham Tothi fully embodies the spirit of the Sakharov Prize,” Renew Europe Group president Dacian Ciolos, an MP from Romania, said.
“Over the years, he advocated for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China, encouraged greater awareness of the situation and treatment of the Uyghur community and fought against its exclusion from Chinese society. Ilham Tohti now risks spending the rest of his life in prison.”
Ciolos said the nomination sends “a strong message of support for his fight for human rights and freedoms of the Uyghur population,” who are targeted under Beijing’s repressive policies in the XUAR.
Renew Europe parliamentarian from the United Kingdom, Phil Bennion, noted that authorities are believed to have held more than 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since April 2017.
“The Uyghur people are subject to internment in re-education camps which challenge their very identity whilst Ilham Tohti is kept in isolation in prison,” he said.
“He only receives infrequent visits from his brother and his daughter is stranded in exile. Professor Tohti deserves this recognition for his courage in defending the rights of his people. It is important that he is not forgotten and that we take a more robust approach in pressing China on its lamentable human rights record.”
Ilhan Kyuchyuk, a Renew Europe lawmaker from Bulgaria, called Tohti’s nomination a “strong sign that the Uyghurs are not forgotten.”
“As a continuation of the work we have started in 2016 with his first nomination, we will keep speaking out loudly to make sure that the voice of the voiceless will be heard,” he said.
“Ilham Tohti tried all his life to peacefully speak for a world where Uyghurs and Han Chinese can live in harmony together and we will keep conveying his powerful message.”
The European Parliament’s committees on foreign affairs and development will shortlist three nominees for the Sakharov Prize, named for Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, on Sept. 30 and announce a laureate on Oct. 24.
Jewher Ilham, Tohti’s U.S.-based daughter, welcomed the announcement on Thursday.
“I am very gratified,” she told RFA’s Uyghur Service, adding that she was pleased that “my father has not been forgotten.”
“This also means that the world is paying attention to the issue of the Uyghur internment camps,” she said.
Enver Can, founder of the Ilham Tohti Initiative, also expressed appreciation for Renew Europe’s nomination.
“Even though we have not been able to secure his release, his name has become even more well-known in the world and his ideas are well-received by the international community,” he said.
“Most importantly, the righteous cause of the Uyghur people under China’s brutal rule has received global attention.”
Last month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe shortlisted Tohti for the 2019 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, named after the Czech playwright and politician who opposed Soviet communism. If selected, he would become the first Chinese dissident awarded the prize.
Responding to the shortlisting, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told a press conference that the Council of Europe should “withdraw the nomination and stop supporting separatist and terrorist forces.”
Tohti was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014, 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.
UN chief under fire
The announcement of Tohti’s nomination for the Sakharov Prize comes as Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the United Nations, is facing criticism from international rights groups for failing to speak out publicly against China’s mass detentions of Uyghur’s in the XUAR.
In a letter to Guterres dated Sept. 17, five rights groups said that “by publicly and unequivocally condemning the Chinese government’s abusive policies and calling for the immediate closing” of its internment camps, the secretary-general would make an “important contribution in addressing one of the most pressing human rights issues during his tenure leading the United Nations.”
The letter was signed by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC).
“Secretary-General Guterres should use the weight and authority of his office to unambiguously call on China’s leadership to shut down Xinjiang’s abusive detention centers,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, said in a statement accompanying the letter.
“The countless victims of China’s latest wave of repression depend on his leadership in standing up to Beijing and demanding an end to the persecution.”
The groups said Guterres’ preferred approach to the Chinese government on the XUAR has been “to conduct private diplomacy,” but noted that Beijing only answers for its actions after intense public pressure, and called on him to urge Chinese authorities to grant the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, and U.N. experts “prompt and unimpeded access” to the camps.
Guterres on Thursday rejected claims by the rights groups that he has not condemned Beijing’s mass incarcerations in the XUAR, saying “I don’t think anyone has been more persistent and more clear in talking to the Chinese authorities in relation to this issue than myself,” and dismissing the suggestion that he had “only done discreet diplomacy.”
The secretary-general said that during a visit to Beijing in April, “not only did I raise the issue, but I made it public,” and told Chinese officials they need to ensure that every community feels that their identity is respected and that they belong to society as a whole.
When asked if China’s camps in the XUAR should be closed, Guterres said Beijing should “do everything that is necessary for human rights to be respected,” without providing details.
Reported by Mihray Abral and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.