Sep 16, 2016

UNPO Members Ilham Tohti and Mustafa Dzhemilev Nominated for the 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uyghur scholar and peaceful advocate for dialogue between Uyghurs and Han Chinese, received a nomination for the Sakharov Prize yesterday [15 September 2016] in recognition of his work towards interethnic harmony, respect, and understanding. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison on false charges of “separatism” for the creation of his website Uyghurbiz, or Uyghur Online, and has been detained since 2014. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) in partnership with the Ilham Tohti Initiative (ITI) and formally launched the campaign for Tohti’s nomination during a conference in May 2016, supported by Ilhan Kyuychuk MEP (ALDE). For the first time in several years, a candidate supported by over 40 MEPs from across the political spectrum and EU Member States was nominated independently from the candidates put forth by the political groups – thanks to the joint efforts of the aforementioned advocacy groups and supportive MEPs. This year, another UNPO Member, Mustafa Dzhemilev, the historic leader of the Crimean Tatars, was also nominated for the Sahkarov Prize, confirming that the work of UNPO and the struggles of its Members remain more relevant than ever.

Ilham Tohti: Scholar, Advocate, Pacifist

Tohti, a Professor of Economics at Minzu University in Beijing, has been critical of state policies regarding Han Chinese settlement in East Turkestan, officially known as the Xinjang autonomous region, where Uyghurs are primarily living. He has called publicly for ethnic harmony between the Uyghur and Han communities, alongside equal rights for his people, including the right to retain their distinct Turkic culture and practice their religion of Islam. Despite Tohti’s firm stance against separatism and violence, he was placed under house arrest numerous times and prevented from leaving China in the years leading up to his arrest. This campaign of persecution by the Chinese authorities culminated in his 2014 trial resulting in a conviction of leading a separatist group and a life sentence. Despite international outcry, China is refusing to move from its position.

By imprisoning the most prominent Uyghur voice in mainland China, Beijing is expressing flagrant disregard for the Uyghur people and human rights in general. Silencing Ilham Tohti amounts to denying all Uyghurs a public voice for he has been speaking up against the oppression of his community. This is concomitant with a generalised crackdown on human rights and civil society in China and the religious persecution of Uyghur Muslims, whose faith contradicts the Communist Party doctrine of atheism and whose practice is thus illegal under Chinese law. For years China has been increasing police and military control of Uyghur regions and interfered into people’s lives unchallenged under the guise of counterterrorist and security measures.

Ilham Tohti has dedicated his life to denouncing inequality and the abuses of power of the Chinese state, which he credits as responsible for creating and inflaming conflict between the Han and Uyghur communities. For him, it is a systemic rather than an individual problem. Citing large numbers of Han friends and supporters, Tohti wants to be a bridge for friendship between Uyghur and Han Chinese. Through his academic outputs as well as his public appearances, he worked tirelessly to foster interethnic harmony. As he started to be followed by increasing numbers of students (some of whom are now missing), the possibility that he may become a peaceful leader scared the Chinese government. Although he is currently in prison for resisting cultural assimilationist and gathering Han support for Uyghur human rights, Tohti still advocates for interethnic harmony and against racial hatred on both sides.

He was the recipient of the 2014 Pen Freedom to Write Award, and is a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award 2016, a prominent international prize recognising the work of human rights defenders.


The Sakharov Prize Nomination

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is an annual award delivered by the European Parliament to those who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the world. It aims to support the laureates and their cause, and to draw attention to human rights violations. Previous recipients of the Sakharov Prize include personalities and organisations such as Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Reporters Without Borders, and Malala Yousafzai. The 2008 Sakharov Prize winner Hu Jia has been a major support of Tohti’s nomination, alongside many writers, academics, and human rights lawyers in China and overseas.

A moderate liberal intellectual who believes in freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and respects the Chinese Constitution, Tohti is a powerful symbol of defiance against dictatorship who resists the demonising narratives of Chinese official media outlets. His Holiness the Dalai Lama endorsed Tohti’s candidacy for the Sakharov Prize, praising the growing support by Han Chinese people for the rights and freedom of minorities, including Uyghurs.

Ilham Tohti is the only candidated not nominated directly by a political group, but rather by a cross-party alliance of 43 MEPs, notably  Ilhan Kyuchyuk (ALDE), László Tőkés and Thomas Mann (EPP), Morten Messerschmidt (ECR), and Nathalie Griesbeck (ALDE). There was great support among MEPs in general, with signatures from the ECR, EPP, ALDE, S&D, EFA-Greens and GUE/NGL groups. This makes Tohti a real cross-party candidate, and the only nominee this year to have reached this stage on the strength of the 40 signatures threshold rather with than the support of a political group.


What happens next?

The nominations will be assessed in a joint meeting of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), the Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) and the Committee on Development (DEVE); a shortlist of three candidates will then be selected through a vote by AFET and DEVE, and finally submitted to the Conference of Presidents for a final vote. The winner will be announced in late October.

Coincidentally, the nominations for the Sakharov Prize were announced the day of the visit of the Dalai Lama to Strasbourg, causing Beijing to react by postponing the visit of MEPs to China.

Tohti’s nomination sends a strong message to China that the EU stands beside those who have been unjustly accused and imprisoned. His candidacy may trigger a positive change in the political environment. In the meantime, calls for Tohti’s release and the struggle for Uyghur human rights continue.


Image courtesy of The Uyghur American Association.