Uyghur economist and human rights activist Ilham Tohti has been awarded this year’s European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

European Parliament President David Sassoli announced the laureate in the Strasbourg chamber at noon on Thursday, following an earlier decision by the Conference of Presidents (President and political group leaders).

“I am very pleased to announce that the European Parliament has chosen Ilham Tohti as the winner of the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Tohti has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of the Uyghur minority in China. Despite being a voice of moderation and reconciliation, he was sentenced to life in prison following a show trial in 2014. By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China”, President Sassoli said, following the decision.

Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uyghur economics professor and advocate for the rights of the Uyghur people, constructively raised numerous issues facing the Uyghur people and worked diligently to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han for over two decades. Professor Tohti established the Uyghurbiz.net in 2006, a website that encouraged conversation between Uyghurs and Chinese as a means of reconciliation between the two groups.

He was arrested in January, 2014, and sentenced to life in prison in September for “inciting separatism” after just a two-day trial—a trial and legal process marred by irregularities including restricting his access to legal representation for six months following detention, denial of the presentation of evidence by prosecutors, and the denial of witnesses called to testify on his behalf.

The World Uyghur Congress welcomed the decision of the European Parliament to award the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to imprisoned Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti. The Sakharov Prize is the top human rights award bestowed by the Parliament and the decision constitutes a strong statement that Europe will not remain silent on egregious human rights violations in China.

“We are grateful to the European Parliament for awarding Ilham Tohti the Sakharov Prize,” said WUC President Dolkun Isa.

“His life and ideals are an inspiration to the Uyghur people. His treatment was a precursor to the crimes against humanity that the Chinese government have been subjecting the Uyghur people since then,” he added.

On the five-year anniversary of his detention, the WUC rallied support from 136 scholars and 19 civil society groups to call for his release. The European Parliament decision adds to the growing chorus of voices drawing attention to his case and calling for his immediate release.

Ilham Tohti remains an inspirational figure for the Uyghur community and a symbol of the peaceful struggle for basic rights. His arrest and life imprisonment proved to be a tragic turning point in how the Chinese government has reacted to critical voices. China’s decision demonstrated their absolute refusal to consider the concerns of the Uyghur people.

Mass arbitrary detentions and terror

Since 2014, the situation in the Uyghur region has deteriorated significantly. Uyghurs have been subjected to an unprecedented crackdown and a suppression of their most fundamental human rights, culminating in the mass arbitrary detention of an estimated 1-3 million in internment camps as part of a broader campaign to socially reengineer and assimilate the population.

Uyghur academics, scholars and professors have been targeted in particular—the Uyghur Human Rights Project has documented over 435 cases of Uyghur intellectuals interned, imprisoned, or forcibly disappeared at since April 2017. Professor Tohti’s detention proved to be a warning to all Uyghur academics that criticism, or mere conversation, about state policy was off limits and seen as a challenge to Party power.

Rather than listening to moderate, critical voices, and engaging in constructive dialogue, the Chinese government has opted to pursue a path of complete repression and assimilation. Instead of respecting Uyghur culture and identity, the Chinese government continues to attack and erode the core of the Uyghur identity through brutal and repressive means.

In this context, the WUC said to be deeply grateful to the European Parliament for bestowing this prestigious award on Ilham Tohti.

According to a WUC press release “it gives hope and reassurance that the EU and the international community has not abandoned the Uyghur people and will hold China accountable for its abuses. On this occasion, the WUC again urges the Chinese government to immediately release Ilham Tohti and all those held in arbitrary detention in China. We urge the Chinese government to listen to the words and message of Ilham Tohti and to the voices of the Uyghur people”.

The Sakharov award ceremony will be held in the European Parliament’s hemicycle in Strasbourg on 18 December.