In brief

Uyghur political prisoner Ilham Tohti awarded 2019 Sakharov Prize

European Parliament demands release of academic, calls on China to “respect minority rights,” denounces detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs

Ilham Tohti.
Ilham Tohti. Author: European Parliament
The European Parliament has awarded the 2019 Sakharov Prize to Ilham Tohti, an Uyghur economist and writer imprisoned in China since 2014, where he was sentenced to life imprisonment over “separatism” charges. “By awarding this prize,” European Parliament President David Sassoli said, “we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China.”

The Parliament has recalled that Tohti “is a proponent of dialogue and advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China.” Despite his jailing, “he remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation.”

The Sakharov Prize website says that, since 2017, “over 1 million innocent Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in a network of internment camps, where they are forced to renounce their ethnic identity and religious beliefs and swear loyalty to the Chinese government.”

Uyghurs, like Tibetans and Mongols, have been persecuted by the Chinese authorities for decades. In the case of the Uyghurs, Beijing has taken advantage of the fight against Islamist terrorism to implement exceptional measures in East Turkestan (or Xinjiang, its official name), the territory where the majority of Uyghurs, a people of Muslim faith, live.

In recent years, the situation has considerably worsened with the massive extension of a policy of camp internment, of which Chinese authorities offer few details. In 2018, Gay McDougall, rapporteur of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said “credible reports” existed that one million people were detained in “so-called counter-extremism centres” and that a further two million were in “re-education camps” for “political and cultural indoctrination.”

Apart from that, Uyghur organizations in the diaspora denounce arbitrary detentions, disappearances, harassment and, in short, a generalized repression against the Uyghur people. Likewise, like Tohti, the groups say that nominal autonomy of East Turkestan in China is nothing but a farce, with all the political, economic and military control of the territory in the hands of the Communist Party of China.