Jailed Uighur academic Ilham Tohti awarded Sakharov Prize

Jailed Uighur academic Ilham Tohti has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament’s top human rights award.

Tohti, an expert on Uighur-Han relations, is a renowned Uighur human rights advocate and an economics professor, who was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 for his activism, following a two-day show trial in China.

Before his detention he regularly criticised the exclusion of China’s Uighur population from Chinese development and encouraged greater awareness of the status and treatment of Uighurs in Chinese society.

But the Chinese authorities declared him a ‘separatist’.

He has previously been awarded the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the 2017 Liberal International Prize for Freedom, and was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

The European Parliament, in a statement on its website, noted that the Uighur people have been subjected to “unparalleled repression by the Chinese government” in recent years as a result of their unique ethnic identity and religious beliefs.

“Since April 2017, over one million innocent Uighurs 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,” the statement said.

“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.”

Among the other six nominees for the prize this year was a group of five students from Kenya – Stacy Owino, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno and Ivy Akinyi – who have developed i-Cut, an app helping girls deal with female genital mutilation (FGM).

The app makes it easier for young women to seek help, find a rescue centre or report the procedure to the authorities. FGM is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. It has been performed on more than 200 million girls and women alive today. Each year more than three million girls are at risk.

The Sakharov Prize is named after 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, a top nuclear physicist who later became a fierce critic of the Soviet system and staunch advocate of human rights. The prize was set up in 1988 to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.