Unlawfully detained since 2014, the famous economist has now received one of the highest European awards. For the CCP, denying repression in Xinjiang becomes even more untenable.
by Marco Respinti
The excellent news of the day is that the winner of the European Parliament’s 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is Mr. Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist who is tirelessly fighting for the rights of China’s Uyghur minority. The meaning of the award was stressed by the President of the European Parliament, Mr. David Sassoli from Italy, who, announcing the name of the laureate, stated, “By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti, and we call for the respect of minority rights in China.”
Mr. Tohti is in fact in jail. As many fellow Uyghurs and others from Turkic minorities. As too many of them. Up to three million, recent accurate studies count. Why? Basically, just because Mr. Tohti is a Uyghur, and a Muslim. The harsh fight of the CCP against all religions and ethnic minorities sees people like Tohti as mortal enemies even if, as it is the case of the new European laureate, they are totally peaceful.
Officially, though, he has been imprisoned for criticizing the CCP’s oppressive policies in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (which Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan), and the inequality of treatment between Uyghurs and Han Chinese living in Xinjiang, through the web site Uyghur Online. Ironically, Mr. Tohti’s main focus has always been the improvement of the relations between Uyghur and Han Chinese. Even more, he called for dialogue and reconciliation. Theoretically, the Chinese regime could have used his offer of dialogue—if it were not so blinded by ideology.
Tohti was arrested on January 15, 2014. Less than two months later, in March 2014, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found his detention totally unjustified. Ignoring this ruling, China sentenced him to life in prison in September 2014 on the charge of “separatism,” which in his case does not make sense. No matter what other Uyghurs may think about creating a separate state out of Xinjiang, Mr. Tohti is famous for arguing just the opposite. He has never spoken in favor of separatism.
Nonetheless, his trial lasted just two days. His lawyers were unable to meet him for six months after his arrest. Documents about the case were withheld from them by the prosecutor. Their witnesses were not allowed to testify.
Thus, Mr. Tohti entered jail in December 2014, at Urumqi’s No. 1 Prison, one of the many repressive structures in Xinjiang. His family, which live in Beijing, miles and miles away, has been able to see him rarely. Until at least early 2016 ‒ China Change advocacy organization reports ‒ he has been held in solitary confinement.
For these reasons, two MEPs, Mr. Ilhan Kyuchyu, from Bulgaria, and Mr. Phil Bennion, from Great Britain, both members of the “Renew Europe” political group, started a campaign on his behalf. It culminated in his nomination to the Sakharov Prize in September 2019, a very prestigious and highly symbolic recognition that honors individuals and groups who dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought. The award is named after Russian scientist and dissident Andrei D. Sakharov (1921-1989). Since the beginnings their campaign, the two MEPs called for the support of UNPO, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, based in Brussels, Belgium.
It was already a great result when, on October 8, the members of the European Parliament selected Mr. Tohti as one of the five finalists for the Prize, but today Uyghurs are galvanized. This is no small victory. “This award”, UNPO General Secretary Mr. Ralph J. Bunche III told Bitter Winter “is yet another recognition that Ilham Tohti is a prisoner of conscience, being held by the People’s Republic of China in violation of all fundamental human rights. He is one of millions of Uyghurs being unlawfully detained in China and is a symbol of, not only, the Uyghur struggle, but of the quest for freedom in the face of oppression that so many are risking their lives to work for in China today. It is our hope that this award represents a watershed moment in EU-China relations, one which will see the EU taking a stronger role to push back against China’s repression of its citizens and its attempts to export its system of governance around the world.”
German scholar, Dr. Adrian Zenz, the world leading expert on the system of repression in Xinjiang, told Bitter Winter, “It is high time that Europe sets such a signal, considering that the Uyghurs’ is the largest incarceration of an ethno-religious minority since the Holocaust.”
The ball is in the CCP’ court now. The Chinese regime has tried to cover its horrible treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic people in Xinjiang by simply consigning it to oblivion. For a long time, it has tried to deny the very existence of the whole repressive machine deployed in the region, the dreaded transformation through education camps where millions are detained. Once pictures and videos and testimonies were released, including by Bitter Winter, and it was no longer possible to hide the facts any longer, the CCP changed its strategy, insisting that those camps are in fact professional schools. How will it respond, now that one of the most well-known Uyghurs dissidents in the world is being upheld by the European Parliament so clearly and openly?