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EU's Sakharov human rights prize awarded to jailed Uighur economist

Ilham Tohti, a member of China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority, speaks at his home in Beijing, China, on Feb. 4, 2013. Tohti was named on Thursday Oct. 24, 2019, as the winner of the Sakharov Prize, the European Union's top human rights prize.

ANDY WONG/AP

By GERRY SHIH | The Washington Post | Published: October 24, 2019

BEIJING — The European Union on Thursday awarded its highest human rights prize to the imprisoned Uighur economist Ilham Tohti in a move that pointedly rebuked China's treatment of the Muslim ethnic minority and may draw a reprisal from Beijing.

Tohti, who advocated greater autonomy for the Uighurs of Xinjiang in western China, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 on separatism charges. He had spent years criticizing Chinese government restrictions and crackdowns on Uighur culture and calling for dialogue between his people and the Han ethnic majority in China.

In a statement announcing the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, European Parliament President David Sassoli called Tohti "a voice of moderation and reconciliation" and noted that China has detained more than 1 million Uighurs in internment camps since 2017.

"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.

The award is likely to anger the Chinese government, which has reacted furiously in the past to international institutions recognizing Chinese dissidents with human rights awards. China punished Norway with years-long, unofficial restrictions on salmon imports and visas after a Norwegian committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the writer Liu Xiaobo, who died in Chinese government custody in 2017.

In recent years, however, Chinese officials have appeared to tolerate a degree of criticism from Europe, a region they have sought to woo amid a withering trade war with the United States.

Beijing has bristled at Western criticism of its sprawling internment network in western Xinjiang, which it defends as a cultural integration and job training campaign for Muslim Uighurs.

The Chinese government has introduced policies in Xinjiang encouraging Uighur to intermarry with Han and study Chinese language and classics. Meanwhile, other prominent Uighur intellectuals such as Rahile Dawut, an expert on Uighur folklore at Xinjiang University, also have been detained under murky circumstances for years.

Tohti's daughter Jewher Ilham, who lives in Washington, said the award was a recognition of the plight facing Uighurs.

"I hope this award will motivate other countries to speak up and take actions against the atrocities the Uighur people are facing today," she said in a text message, adding that she hoped to travel to Strasbourg, France, to accept the award on her imprisoned father's behalf.

In a faxed comment, the Chinese foreign ministry said it was not aware of the award and called Tohti a criminal sentenced by a Chinese court according to law. "We hope all parties could respect China's domestic affairs and judicial sovereignty, and not be boosters for terrorists," it said.

Earlier this month, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang denounced the university lecturer as "a separatist in support of extreme terrorism" who recruited students into militant causes and condemned the European Parliament's consideration of the Sakharov Prize "an insult on and a travesty to human rights."

Although Xinjiang has been struck by militant separatist attacks and racial violence in the past, international human rights groups say the Chinese internment program is vastly disproportionate to the threat and tantamount to a wholesale effort to erase the religion and culture of more than 10 million Uighurs.

The Sakharov Prize is named for the late Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, who was feted by the Soviet system as a star physicist before he became one of its fiercest critics and a staunch human rights campaigner.

Former winners of the Sakharov Prize include South African leader Nelson Mandela, Pakistani women's rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Since its inception in 1988, the prize has been given twice to Chinese citizens: veteran pro-democracy activists Hu Jia, in 2008, and Wei Jingsheng, in 1996.

In a message to The Washington Post late Thursday, Hu, who has spent most of the past two decades in prison and house arrest, said he supported Tohti for the Sakharov Prize in 2016 - before China ramped up its detention program in Xinjiang - but he was not chosen.

"Since then, the condition of the Uighur people has gone off a precipice, something like the Jews of Europe historically," Hu said. "This finally left the world with no choice but to speak up."
 

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