Sakharov Prize: daughter of 2019 laureate Ilham Tohti receives prize on his behalf

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Speech by European Parliament President David Sassoli on awarding of 2019 Sakharov Prize to Ilham Tohti

“Ilham Tohti’s fight shows the importance of dialogue, reconciliation and mutual understanding.”  

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

Today we award the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Professor Ilham Tohti, who cannot be here with us as he has been held in prison since 2014. His struggle, for which he is paying a high price, humbles us and at the same time is a source of inspiration. I express my sincere thanks to his daughter, Ms Jewher Ilham, who had the courage to come here among us to represent her father.

It is here, at the heart of European democracy, that we can hear, and above all listen to, the voice of those who cannot be heard in their own countries. By awarding the Sakharov Prize, this Parliament can be the mouthpiece of freedom of thought and speech, an extremely valuable freedom.

The choice made by the European Parliament this year makes me particularly proud and I am deeply honoured to be able to award this prize to Professor Ilham. His struggle highlights the values ​​of dialogue, mutual understanding, moderation, reconciliation and cultural diversity. These are the same values ​​that underpin the European project and this Parliament. The latest Eurobarometer survey reminds us that these are also our citizens' values.

Ilham Tohti is a professor of economics, but he is also a voice that calls for moderation and reconciliation. He is committed to defending the rights of the Uyghur minority in China, with the hope of improving their living conditions. The Uyghurs are constantly victims of all kinds of persecution: physical, cultural, religious, economic, and political. Since April 2017, over one million innocent Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in a network of prison camps, where they are forced to renounce their ethnic identity and their religious convictions.

However, these people are a great people, with a rich identity, with a history of more than a thousand years and a culture that needs to be preserved. Ilham Tohti, through his activities as an activist, has succeeded in giving a voice to these people. Although detained in prison, his voice resonates today with that of his daughter and many other Uyghurs.

For over twenty years he has worked tirelessly to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between Uyghurs and other peoples in China. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for "separatism".

The European Parliament calls for his immediate and unconditional release.

His struggle and all the hardship he suffered remind us that we must fight for freedom of thought. It is a fundamental right that is sometimes won at the price of human lives.

I would like to recall the fate of the winners of the previous editions of the award, who are currently in prison and are persecuted for defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, sometimes even for having won the prize: Nasrin Sotoudeh (Iran) , Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia), the "Damas de Blanco" (Cuba), various members of the democratic opposition in Venezuela and Asmaa Mahfouz (Egypt).

Therefore, this Parliament urges the High Representative to take all necessary measures, in its contacts with the countries concerned, to obtain the release and the cessation of the persecution of these previous winners of the Sakharov Prize. This request is also extended to EU Member States, in the framework of their bilateral relations with these countries, in order to speak with one voice in conveying common EU values ​​and defending human rights and freedoms.

Today should be a day of celebration to celebrate freedom of thought, and instead it is a sad day. Once again, this chair is empty, because in the world we live in, being free to think does not always mean being truly free.

Pending the release of Ilham Tothi, we turn our thoughts to him, his family, and all those who are in jail with him. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, grants us the honour of being here on his behalf.

Ms. Ilham, I give you the floor.






Iham Tohti

2019 Sakharov Prize laureate

© AP Images / Andy WONG

Ilham Tohti is a renowned Uyghur human rights defender, economics professor and advocate of the rights of China's Uyghur minority. For over two decades, he has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and other Chinese people. In September 2014 Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for his activism following a 2-day show trial. He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of what he has suffered.

Tohti is known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations and as a vocal advocate of the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China. He was also the host of Uyghur Online, a website that discusses Uyghur issues. Via this platform, Ilham Tohti regularly criticised the exclusion of China's Uyghur population from Chinese development and encouraged greater awareness of the status and treatment of the Uyghur community in Chinese society. For these actions, he was declared a 'separatist' by the Chinese state and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

For his work in the face of adversity, Tohti was awarded the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the 2017 Liberal International Prize for Freedom, and has been nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Uyghur people have been subjected to unparalleled repression by the Chinese government in recent years as a result of their unique ethnic identity and religious beliefs. Since April 2017, over 1 million innocent Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in a network of internment camps, where they are forced to renounce their ethnic identity and religious beliefs and swear loyalty to the Chinese government.

Ilham Tohti's case touches on crucial international issues and human rights concerns: the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of state-directed religious repression; efforts to open channels of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population; and the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state.



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