Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist jailed in China for fighting for the rights of the ethnic Muslim minority, has been named this year’s winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
“Tohti has dedicated his life to advocating for the rights of the Uyghur minority in China. Despite being a voice of moderation and reconciliation,” parliament president David Sassoli said when announcing the winner of the European legislature’s top human rights prize on Oct. 24.
“By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China,” he said
Tohti, 50, was sentenced to life imprisonment on separatism-related charges following what the parliament called a “show trial” in 2014 in which he was accused of promoting independence in China’s Xinjiang region on his website, Uyghur Online.
The European Parliament said he remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in Xinjiang, an autonomous territory in northwest China bordering Central Asia, where more than more than one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps since 2017.
The huge roundup is a result of Chinese fears of separatist violence amid simmering tensions between Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority, and Han Chinese migrants.
China claims the camps are “vocational training centers” where detainees are given jobs and are being helped to integrate into Chinese society. But diplomats and rights groups have called for unfettered access, amid fears about camp conditions and treatment of those inside.
The detentions came on the heels of repressive restrictions that prevented Uyghurs from worshipping freely. These included banning religious names being given to Muslim babies.
China also stands accused of trying to coerce members of Uyghurs Muslim families living abroad to return home.
A ceremony awarding Tohti the Sakharov Prize in his absence will take place in Strasbourg on Dec. 18.
The prize consisting of a certificate and €50,000 (US$ 55,000) is named in honor of the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been awarded annually since 1988 to individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.