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25 October 2019

Front Line Defenders welcomes awarding of 2019 Sakharov Prize to Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti

Front Line Defenders welcomes the awarding of the European Parliament’s 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Uyghur professor and human rights defender Ilham Tohti, whose birthday today is the sixth he has spent behind bars serving a life sentence.

Ilham Tohti was an economist and professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing prior to his arrest in January 2014. Rejecting separatism and violence, he worked peacefully for over two decades to build understanding between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic ethnic group residing primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in western China. Through his writing and lectures, Ilham defended the rights of the Uyghur people and highlighted government policies that limit the use of the Uyghur language, prevent Muslim religious practices, impede access to employment, and encourage mass Han migration into the region. In 2006, he set up Uyghur Online, a Chinese-language website for the dissemination of Uyghur-centric news. Across this platform, he regularly highlighted government policies and practices that undermine the rights of Uyghurs, and encouraged greater awareness of the status and treatment of the Uyghur community in Chinese society. On 23 September 2014, the Urumqi People's Intermediate Court found him guilty of “separatism” and sentenced him to life imprisonment. His appeal was rejected on 21 November 2014.

Ilham Tohti’s peaceful human rights work has been widely recognised internationally. Since his detention in 2014, Tohti has been awarded the Martin Ennals Award in 2016, the Weimar City Council’s Human Rights Award in 2017, the Liberal International’s Prize for Freedom in 2017, and the Council of Europe’s Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2019. In July 2014, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Ilham’s arrest was arbitrary. The Working Group called for his release and that he should be compensated for the time spent in prison. In October 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang. It called on the Chinese government to “immediately and unconditionally release Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and all others detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression.”

Ilham Tohti is one of 11 emblematic cases of persecuted human rights defenders in Front Line Defenders’s Set Them Free campaign, which are illustrative of the way in which repressive governments around the world consistently use the law in an attempt to smear and silence human rights defenders.

Front Line Defenders calls on China to immediately and unconditionally release Ilham Tohti, and, pending his release, ensure his physical and psychological integrity in detention. We urge China to foster and maintain a safe and enabling environment for all human rights defenders, including those who promote and defend the rights of Uyghurs, Tibetans and other minority and vulnerable groups in China. We also pay tribute to all the other finalists and nominees for this year’s Sakharov Prize: Alexei Navalny of Russia; Claudelice Silva dos Santos, Jean Wyllys, and the late Marielle Franco of Brazil; Chief Raoni of the Kayapo people of the Amazon; and the Restorers, a group consisting of Stacy Owino, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno and Ivy Akinyi from Kenya.

We look forward to the European Parliament, and indeed the European Union increasing its pressure on the Chinese authorities to release Ilham Tohti and improve his detention conditions, and its attention to the security and protection of all finalists.


Despite Xinjiang’s nominal status as an “autonomous region,” the Chinese state has placed the region and its inhabitants under increasingly draconian control. Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have expanded a campaign to restrict the exercise of all aspects of Muslim culture, including religion, language, dress, diet, hairstyle, and public assembly. Since 2017, a growing body of credible reports emerged documenting the incarceration of over one million Turkic Muslims in concentration camps across Xinjiang, the separation of children from detained parents or guardians, and reports of sexual violence against women detainees in the camps.

In its August 2018 review of China’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the CERD Committee expressed alarm at the “detention of large numbers of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering religious extremism.” The Committee further expressed concern about mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs, police confiscation of Xinjiang residents’ travel documents and requirement of residents to apply for permission to leave the country, and reports of Uyghurs who had left China and were subsequently returned to the country against their will. In a follow-up report submitted to the CERD Committee earlier this month, the Chinese government continues to defend and portray the concentration camps as “vocational education and training centres” necessary for “counter-terrorism” and “de-extremification” purposes.

In November 2018, six UN human rights experts wrote to the Chinese government raising concern about the revision of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Regulation on De-extremification, which targets Turkic Muslim ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities as well as Kazakh nationals. The experts warned that the revised Regulation is incompatible with China’s international human rights obligations and that it “legalises the creation and existence of what have been termed “re-education” centres, but whose alleged closed and coercive nature, may result in their classification as detention centres where forced indoctrination is taking place.”

During the summer session of the UN Human Rights Council in July 2019, 22 countries issued an unprecedented joint letter calling on China to end mass arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. The signatories also urged China to allow “meaningful access” to Xinjiang for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other independent international observers.