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NY Times, Oct. 12 2016
Ilham Tohti, Uighur Scholar in Chinese Prison, Is Given Human Rights Award
By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
GENEVA — Two years after the Chinese authorities sentenced the prominent
Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment for promoting
separatism and violence, a Swiss-based foundation awarded him a
prestigious human rights prize on Tuesday for his efforts to foster
dialogue and understanding.
Mr. Tohti, an economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing at the
time of his arrest in January 2014, was named the winner of the Martin
Ennals Foundation’s annual award, sometimes called the Nobel of human
rights prizes, for two decades of work trying to defuse tensions between
Uighurs and ethnic Han and promoting respect for Uighur culture. The Han
are the dominant ethnic group in China.
“He has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation
based on a respect for Uighur culture,” the foundation said in its
announcement of the award, which flatly contradicts the Chinese
government’s depiction of Mr. Tohti as a dangerous separatist
propagating hatred and extremism.
Mr. Tohti was one of three finalists shortlisted for the prize, which
recognizes human rights defenders who have worked at great personal risk
and aims to generate international recognition that may afford them some
The other finalists were Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer
who was kidnapped with her husband and two colleagues in December 2013
in an area controlled by a jihadist opposition group and is still
missing, and a group of rights advocates in Ethiopia, known as the Zone
9 bloggers, who defied strict controls on the news media to document
human rights abuses and the plight of political prisoners.
Mr. Tohti started writing about the tensions and abuse in Xinjiang, a
region in China’s far west, in the 1990s and was barred from teaching
from 1999 to 2003, the foundation said. Prevented from publishing
through normal channels, he set up a Chinese-language website,
After riots erupted in Xinjiang in July 2009, Mr. Tohti published
articles reporting arrests and disappearances of Uighurs by the Chinese
authorities and was detained for several weeks.
“Xinjiang’s main conflict isn’t about terrorism or counterterrorism,
it’s about inequality and the abuse of power,” Mr. Tohti said in an
interview that the foundation included in a film portrait. “It’s about
how powerful vested interests monopolize developmental resources.”
The police arrested Mr. Tohti at the Beijing airport in 2013 as he
prepared to leave with his daughter, Jewher, to take up a post as a
visiting scholar at Indiana University. He was rearrested in January
2014 and flown to Xinjiang, and after a two-day trial in the region’s
capital, Urumqi, that September, he was sentenced to life imprisonment
on charges of separatism.
“My father, Ilham Tohti, has used only one weapon in his struggle for
the basic rights of the Uighurs of Xinjiang: words; spoken, written,
distributed and posted,” Ms. Tohti said in a statement to the
foundation. “This is all he has ever had at his disposal, and all that
he has ever needed.”
The award, decided by a panel of 10 of the world’s leading human rights
organizations, is certain to anger China. Officials there lobbied the
Swiss federal authorities and the foundation in 2014 after it nominated
another Chinese dissident, Cao Shunli, who died that year in prison.
China’s Foreign Ministry reacted angrily in April 2014 when Mr. Tohti
received an American human rights award for writers.
“When you attack the moderates, as the Chinese state is doing, and
attack someone so harshly that someone like Ilham receives a life
sentence for doing nothing that any liberal regime would consider a
crime — in other words, he was simply expressing his opinion — what you
do is that you leave the field open only to the extremists,” Elliot
Sperling, an associate professor of Tibetan studies in the Central
Eurasian studies department at Indiana University, said in the film
profile of Mr. Tohti.
“What China is doing is feeding extremism,” he added. “This is very,
very dangerous and something that the rest of the world really should
pay attention to.”
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