May 02, 2016

East Turkestan: Ilham Tohti Nominated for Human Rights Award

Photo Courtesy of: News Pakistan 2014

Recognizing his unwavering fight for human rights, scholar and activist Ilham Tohti has been nominated for a prestigious human rights award, a move which is likely to elicit protest from Beijing. Tohti, who was detained for constructed charges of ‘separatism’ in 2014 and later sentenced to life in prison, is known as a moderate voice calling for dialogue between Uyghurs and Han in China’s troubled Xinjiang region. Among the other finalists for the award are Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer from Syria, and the ‘Zone 9’ activists, a group of bloggers covering political and constitutional issues and the treatment of political detainees in Ethiopia, who were also detained in 2015.


Below is an article published by The New York Times: 

A prominent Uighur scholar who is serving a life sentence for separatism in a Chinese prison was named on Wednesday [27 April 2016] as a finalist for a prestigious human rights award for trying to promote dialogue in the troubled Xinjiang region of China.

The scholar, Ilham Tohti, was chosen by the Martin Ennals Foundation, based in Switzerland, as one of three candidates for its annual prize recognizing the work of human rights defenders. The group, which is named after the founder of Amnesty International, said in its citation that Mr. Tohti, an economist, “has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding” between China’s Uighur minority and the country’s dominant ethnic group, the Han, “despite an environment of religious, cultural and political repression suffered by Uighurs.”

The decision was all but certain to anger Beijing. In 2014, after the Ennals Foundation nominated another Chinese dissident, Cao Shunli, for the prize, Chinese officials lobbied the Swiss federal authorities and the foundation’s donors and partners to deny her the award, according to the foundation. Ms. Cao died in detention before a winner was chosen.

The two other finalists for the award this year are Razan Zaitouneh, a missing human rights lawyer from Syria, and a group of rights advocates in Ethiopia, known as the Zone 9 Bloggers, who have defied strict controls on the news media there. The prize will be awarded in October.

“These three stood out as being particularly courageous, persistent, principled and innovative and at a very high level of risk,” said Philip Lynch, director of the International Service for Human Rights, one of ten rights organizations on the nominating jury.

Ms. Zaitouneh, who set up the Violations Documentation Center to track deaths and abuses in Syria’s jails, went into hiding in 2012 and was abducted a year later along with her husband and two colleagues, apparently seized by an armed rebel group. She has not been seen since. The Zone 9 Bloggers covered political and constitutional issues in Ethiopia and the treatment of political detainees there. Some of them faced terrorism charges that were later dropped, although prosecutors have appealed that decision; three of the bloggers have fled the country.

Mr. Tohti, a professor at Minzu University in Beijing, was a blunt critic of China’s policies encouraging Han settlement in the Xinjiang region, in China’s far west, and he called for Uighurs there to have access to the same economic benefits as Han and to be allowed to preserve their Turkic culture. At the same time, human rights groups say, he argued against separatism and expressed concern about growing militancy among Uighurs in the region. Mr. Tohti was repeatedly placed under house arrest, and in 2013, he was prevented from leaving China to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.

In January 2014, Mr. Tohti was arrested at his home in Beijing and sent to Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, where, that September, he underwent a two-day closed trial, accused of leading a separatist group and of “internationalizing” the problems in the region. His subsequent life sentence was condemned by the United States and other foreign governments and by rights groups.

“By giving him life they were sending an extreme message that there is simply no room, even through peaceful means, to criticize state policies in Xinjiang,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, said by telephone. “We see his work as part of the solution to the situation in Xinjiang, not as part of the problem.”