BRUSSELS—The European Union on Oct. 24 awarded its top human rights prize to economist Ilham Tohti for his work defending China’s Uyghur minority, and urged Beijing to release him from jail.
A moderate though outspoken Uyghur critic of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014.
Tohti was accused of having committed crimes against the “people’s democratic dictatorship regime and the socialist system.” The charges included “ethnic disharmony” and “ethnic chaos,” the definitions of which are determined by Communist Party ideology, rather than law.
Despite the charge of separatism, Tohti opposed Xinjiang independence and advocated for open dialogue to resolve tensions between the ethnic Uyghurs and Han Chinese.
European Parliament President David Sassoli, announcing the winner of the Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg, France, praised Tohti for dedicating his life to advocating the rights of China’s Uyghur minority.
“By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China,” Sassoli said.
Tohti succeeded Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who was recently released from a Russian prison camp after being accused of plotting acts of terrorism.
Before his arrest, Tohti worked at the Minzu University of China in Beijing. His commentary was regarded as reasonable, though critical of the CCP’s policies toward Xinjiang and the Uyghurs.
Tohti previously ran a website, wrote essays, and gave interviews to Western media about CCP policies in Xinjiang. Security forces then brought him back to Xinjiang, where he received a life sentence.
Phil Bennion, a British Liberal Democrat member of the European parliament, said while they were happy he had won the prize, they also could not be sure he would get the news.
“He has been in solitary confinement since his imprisonment in 2014, and for the last 2 years has been denied visiting rights by the Chinese authorities. Even his family has not seen him since 2017,” he said.
The Chinese regime has used the excuse that Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions with the ethnic Han Chinese majority to crack down on the local population in Xinjiang.
The U.S. State Department and experts have estimated that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are currently being detained inside internment camps in the region, as part of the Chinese regime’s crackdown on “extremism.” Beijing claims these camps are “vocational training centers.”
Uyghurs and other Muslims held in concentration camp-like facilities where they are forbidden from using Islamic greetings, must learn Mandarin Chinese, and sing propaganda songs, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
The Epoch Times and Reuters contributed to this report.