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Jailed Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti receives top EU rights prize

In this file photo taken on on June 12, 2010, shows the University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti pauses for a few moments for a view from the window before a classroom lecture in Beijing.
In this file photo taken on on June 12, 2010, shows the University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti pauses for a few moments for a view from the window before a classroom lecture in Beijing. Frederic J. Brown, AFP

On Wednesday, the European Parliament awarded its 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to outspoken Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who is in prison in China and was unable to attend the ceremony.

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The outspoken former professor of economics at a Beijing university was sentenced in 2014 by Chinese courts to life imprisonment for “separatism” in a trial that provoked an outcry from foreign governments and human rights organisations. He has been imprisoned in Urumqi ever since.

Not only was Tohti not able to attend the Sakharov Prize ceremony in Strasbourg Wednesday, but he may not have even known that he had received the prize, which was announced on October 24 by the European Parliament. Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, accepted the prize in his place.



Tohti follows the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who received the 2018 Sakharov Prize when he too was in prison. Sentsov was finally able to accept the prize in person in November after being released from his Russian prison as part of a swap between Russia and Ukraine.

Contact with Tohti impossible

Jewher Ilham, who lives in exile in the United States, is fighting for her father to be freed and for his name not to be forgotten. Maintaining contact with him, however, has been impossible.

“His family hasn’t received any news since 2017. They don’t know anything about the state of his health,” says Charles Pellegrin, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in China.

“No contact with (Tohti) is possible,” confirms Dilnur Reyhan, president of the Uighur Institute of Europe (IODE).


Before his arrest in January 2014, Tohti founded and ran the UighurOnline website, which wrote in Uighur and Chinese about social issues.

He gained prominence as a moderate voice drawing attention to ethnic tensions in the region and taught at a Beijing university.

Rights groups and experts say more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up in internment camps in Xinjiang.

Authorities in the northwestern region have also rolled out an extensive surveillance system combining methods including high-tech facial recognition cameras, wifi sniffers and home visits, according to Human Rights Watch.

>> Reporters: Surviving China's Uighur camps

Tohti's website was shut down when he was arrested, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog.

Tohti had previously been detained in 2009 amid ethnic violence in Xinjiang, after he wrote about Uighurs detained and killed during the unrest, according to Amnesty International.

China initially denied the existence of the camps, but now says they are “vocational training schools” necessary to combat terrorism.

‘Giving the entire Uighur people a voice’

Tohti, who turned 50 in October, earlier in autumn won another of Europe’s top human rights awards, the Vaclav Havel prize, for “giving the entire Uighur people a voice”.

He “has worked for over 20 years on the situation of the Uighur minority and on fostering inter-ethnic dialogue and understanding in China,” the Council of Europe, Europe's top rights body, said after nominating Tohti for the prize.

China had slammed the Council of Europe after it nominated Tohti for the Vaclav Havel prize, which was also awarded to a rights group from the Balkans. China’s foreign ministry called Tohti a “separatist who supports extreme terrorism”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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