Ilham Tohti’s Sakharov Prize And The Desecration Of Uyghur Society

Ilham Tohti and his wife in a photo sent to RFA's Uyghur Service via WeChat on Jan 13, 2014, two days before his detention. RFA

Ilham Tohti was famous for pushing back against the material and social dispossession of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. When even this moderate scholar was silenced five years ago, it signalled that there was no more space to publicly suggest ways to oppose the elimination of Uyghur culture.

The Sakharov Prize honors the dignity of Uyghur social life and the way Ilham Tohti strove to protect it.

On October 24, 2019, it was announced that the Uyghur public intellectual Ilham Tohti would be awarded the European Parliament’s highest human rights award: the Sakharov Prize. Ilham, a marxist economist from Beijing’s Minzu University, was famous for pushing back against the material and social dispossession of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims.

Up until July 6, 2009, a day after large scale protests and violence began in Ürümchi, Ilham had edited a Chinese language website based in China called “UighurBiz.cn,” which in Uyghur means “We are Uyghurs.” Like his friend Ai Weiwei, who also grew up in Xinjiang, Ilham used his position of influence to build a digital platform that advocated for the civil rights of those who were most vulnerable in contemporary China. Whether it was the victims of the Wenchuan earthquake or Uyghurs who were losing their land, loved ones, or right to study their own language, both of them asked Chinese authorities to defend the rule of law as enshrined in the Chinese constitution.

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