Jailed Uighur activist awarded top EU human rights prize

Ilham Tohti, a prominent jailed Uighur rights activist and academic, has been given a top European Union (EU) human rights award for his efforts on healing the divide between the Han Chinese and the Uighur community, Deutsche Welle (DW) reported on Wednesday.

Jewher Ilham, activist’s daughter, received the EU Parliament’s 2019 Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought on her father’s behalf in Strasburg as he has been serving a life sentence in prison in China since 2014.

“It is unfortunate that he is not able to accept this award by himself,” his daughter said at a ceremony in the EU Parliament.

Beijing accused Tohti of trying to promote separatism, even though he had always worked to improve relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese as he was against breaking up the country.

“My father never [said] a word about separating the country … He never mentioned or committed a violent act before. So I am very confident to say the charges from the Chinese government are absolutely ridiculous. My father always believed that if there is a problem, we need to fix it. And he wanted to fix the problem,” Jewher told DW before the award ceremony.

The activist, a moderate critic of Beijing’s policy towards the country’s Muslim minority, tried to bring the plight of the Uighur Muslims in western China to the world’s attention.

To do so, Tohti set up a news site, Uighur Online, and wrote there with a particular focus on China’s mistreatment of Uighurs and its forced assimilation, until it was shut down by the Chinese authorities.

“He realized all those issues [between Han Chinese and Uighurs] were caused by a lack of understanding, and he was hoping that by fostering dialogue and gaining understanding, it could help harmony between Han Chinese and Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups, other religious groups in China,” Jewher added.

When asked why the Chinese government has been acting against the Uighur population, Jewher pointed to the Uighur region’s great geopolitical importance, which is one-sixth of the Chinese landmass but has only one percent of China’s population.

That is why China had been migrating Han Chinese to the region over the past few decades, according to Tohti’s daughter.

“But I do not think any of those reasons justify these cruel acts against Uighurs,” Jewher said.

Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim ethnic group, predominantly live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China.

Following the 2019 ethnic riots in Xinjiang against China’s oppression, the country has increased a security clampdown on the Uighurs, which caused many to flee the region, with most of them traveling to Turkey due to close ethnic relations. Around 35,000 Uighurs live in Turkey.

Besides increasing the police presence in the region, China established “re-education camps” or “vocation training centers” for detained Uighurs in a bid to combat extremism in Xinjiang.

Those who criticize the Chinese administration are reportedly sent to the “re-education program” without being released until the authorities are convinced that they will not criticize Beijing publicly again.

The concentration camps, which first began operating in 2014, have been labeled “cultural genocide” by international academic journals.

Many Western countries deem the facilities “internment camps,” in which one to three million Muslims are detained, according to numerous international media reports.

China denies the accusations of mistreatment and views the camps as “training facilities” designed to stamp out extremist tendencies among the Uighurs.

In February, after years of silence, Turkey’s foreign ministry released a statement and called on the Asian nation to close the camps, defining China’s treatment of Uighurs as “a great cause of shame for humanity.”

“It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighurs, who have been arbitrarily arrested, are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in the internment camps and prisons,” the statement read at the time.

Later, Turkey and Britain raised the issue in the 40th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, advocating against the camps in Xinjiang.

However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted by Chinese state television during an official visit to China in early July as saying “people in China’s Xinjiang region live happily in China’s development and prosperity.”

Similarly, during a meeting with his counterpart in Beijing in July 2015, Erdogan had shocked Uighurs, saying, “I condemn terrorist activities in East Turkestan [Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region].”

“Sorry, but no European country, excluding Turkey, the country we know as our second homeland, recognizes Uighurs as terrorists. Turkey’s president remarks made us our very upset,” said Seyit Tumturk, the Vice President of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) at the time.

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