Oct 24, 2019

EU Takes Stand for the Uyghurs: Ilham Tohti Awarded The 2019 Sakharov Prize

The European Parliament has awarded jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti the 2019 prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named after Russian scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, making him the first Uyghur to win the prize. Tohti, who is a renowned Uyghur human rights defender worked tirelessly for the rights of the Uyghurs, fostering dialogue and understanding between the Uyghurs and the Han people, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Chinese Communist Party following a two-day show trial in September 2014.

In the early hours of the 24th of October 2019, Ilham Tohti has been awarded the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which honours outstanding individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought both in Europe and beyond. The award holds immense significance not only for Tohti but also for the millions of Uyghurs living under oppression and kept in internment camps by the Chinese government because of their distinct religious and ethnic identity.

Ilham Tohti, who turns 50 this week, is a Uyghur economics professor and human rights activist serving a life imprisonment sentence in Chinese prison since 2014 for alleged charges of ‘separatism’ for merely speaking out against the suppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Ilham was a strong advocate of regional autonomy laws in China and fostering dialogue between the Uyghurs and the Han population. He also bravely criticized the degrading treatment of the Uyghur community in the Chinese society on his website, Uyghur Online, which discusses various Uyghur social issues.  

His imprisonment is a particularly significant case given the crucial international and human rights issues on which it touches, including exercising the right to freedom of religion 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. His story exemplifies the ideals of Andrei Sakharov and it is for these reasons that he is the laureate of the 2019 Sakharov prize.

It has been a year since the United Nations reported that nearly one million Uyghurs are being held by China in internment camps in Xinjiang, what the Chinese communist party refers to as ‘re-education camps’. Since then, the numbers have only increased, with reports suggesting figures between 800,000 to 3 million Uyghurs being kept in detention, often subject to torture, cruel and degrading treatment. However, China’s growing global economic and political influence has potentially hindered any serious diplomatic or international pressure from being exerted on the Chinese Communist Party over the mistreatment and persecution of the Uyghur minority. Instead, in a recent letter sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council, thirty-seven states endorsed China’s appalling human rights record. 

Amidst this political climate of indifference, the EU’s decision to award Tohti with the Sakharov prize holds immense significance for the persecuted Uyghurs and is evidence that the European Union is a true champion of universal human rights and freedom of thought. It demonstrates that for the European Union, the protection of fundamental human rights takes priority over trade for and that it stands in solidarity with Ilham Tohti and the millions of Uyghurs living under systematic oppression and fear.

Celebrating the award, the UNPO's General Secretary, Ralph Bunche noted: "This award is yet more recognition that Ilham Tohti is a prisoner of conscience being held by the PRC in violation of all fundamental human rights.  He is one of over a million Uyghurs being unlawfully detained in China and is a symbol of, not only, the Uyghur struggle, but of the quest for freedom in the face of oppression that so many are risking their lives to work for in China today. It is our hope that this award represents a watershed moment in EU China relations, one which will see the EU taking a stronger role to push back against China's repression of its citizens and its attempts to export its system of governance around the world."

Photo courtesy Frederic J. brown / AFP