Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, who is currently serving a life sentence on separatism charges, has been awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament. In granting him the honor, the European Parliament wrote:
Ilham Tohti’s case touches on crucial international issues and human rights concerns: the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of state-directed religious repression; efforts to open channels of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population; and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state. [Source]
The BBC reports on the award:
Mr Tohti, seen by many as a moderate voice, has denied being a separatist.
Although still in jail, Mr Tohti, 49, has been recognised for drawing attention to ethnic tensions in Xinjiang. A ceremony awarding him the Sakharov Prize in his absence will be held in Strasbourg in December.
China had accused him of separatism and stoking ethnic tensions. The economics scholar’s imprisonment provoked condemnation from human rights groups, with the UN, the EU and US calling for his release.
The EU Parliament said Mr Tohti deserved the Sakharov Prize for his attempts to “foster dialogue” between Chinese people and the Uighur. “The parliament calls on the Chinese authorities to release him immediately,” EU Parliament President David Sassoli said. [Source]
France24 reports on his work prior to his arrest:
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.
[…] 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. [Source]
Ilham‘s efforts to provide a voice of moderation and reason in an increasingly fraught atmosphere in Xinjiang may have in fact made him a target. In an interview with Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books, writer Wang Lixiong commented: “[T]hey don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists.”
Since Ilham Tohti’s arrest, the crackdown in Xinjiang has escalated, imposing restrictions on almost all facets of life for the predominately Muslim Uyghur minority, including limits on Islamic dress and religious customs, use of high-tech surveillance, and, in recent years, the forced internment of up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in detention camps where they undergo political indoctrination in what some have called a form of “cultural genocide.” Among those detained are numerous intellectuals, including Tashpolat Tiyip, a geographer and former president of Xinjiang University, who has been sentenced to death. As The Economist recently reported, the crackdown in Xinjiang has extended beyond China’s borders, with family members of Uyghur reporters for the U.S.-based Radio Free Asia targeted by the Chinese government for their relatives’ work exposing the situation in Xinjiang.