Jailed Uyghur scholar wins EU rights award as European Parliament condemns Xinjiang repression

"The vision of everybody behind the senior leadership muzzled is just too perfect a metaphor" tweeted Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times.
/ Credit: Image via Xinhua.

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Ilham Tohti

Despite Ilham Tohti’s moderate views and willingness to work within the system, the Uyghur economist and professor at Minzu University in Beijing was detained and charged with “separatism” in January 2014, after many years of harassment from the authorities. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment after a secret trial, a decision which the Xinjiang High People’s Court upheld in November 2014. There has been no information about Ilham Tohti’s treatment or whereabouts since then.

Yesterday, the forgotten scholar made headlines again when his daughter received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize on his behalf for his work in the face of adversity. Agence France-Presse reports:

Jewher Ilham said she hoped the award of would help her father, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 for “separatism” in a trial that provoked an outcry from foreign governments and human rights organizations.

The parliament hailed the former economics professor as a “voice of moderation and reconciliation” when it announced the award in October, while Beijing condemned the move, calling Tohti a “terrorist.”

“The last time I heard about my father was 2017, that was also the last time a family visit was granted to my father,” Ilham told AFP before receiving the prize next to a symbolic empty chair at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

“So that was also the last time my family saw him. I don’t even know if he is alive.”

Today, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China with an “overwhelming majority.” The resolution, among many other demands and concerns:

—Expresses its deepest concerns about the increasingly repressive regime that Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities are facing and demands that the authorities respect their fundamental freedoms, as recommended by credible reports;

—Strongly condemns the sending of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs to political ‘reeducation camps’ on the basis of a system of predictive policing, including for having travelled abroad or being adjudged too religiously devout;

—Calls on the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang to provide information about the locations and medical conditions of those detained;

—Urges the Chinese Government to put an immediate end to the practice of arbitrary detention without charge, trial or conviction for a criminal offence of members of the Uyghur and Kazakh minorities, to close all camps and detention centres, and to immediately and unconditionally release those detained;

—Calls on the Chinese authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and all other human rights defenders, activists, lawyers, journalists and petitioners detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression, and to end the ongoing crackdown involving detention, judicial harassment and intimidation;

—Reiterates its call on the Chinese authorities to allow free, meaningful and unhindered access to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for independent journalists and international observers, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the mandate holders of the UN Human Rights Council Special Procedures.

Yesterday, in Washington D.C., the U.S. House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee turned its attention to another troubled western region of China: Tibet. On Wednesday “the House approved a bill calling for stronger US support for religious and human rights in Tibet, a step on the way to it becoming law,” reports the South China Morning Post.

Known as the Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2019, the bill is expected to go to the House for a full vote, although a date has not been set.