Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur scholar fighting for the rights of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority, has been in jail since 2014 on separatism-related charges. Presenting the award, Parlimaent President David Sassoli said: “Ilham Tohti, with his activism, managed to give a voice to the Uyghurs. [...] He has been working for 20 years to promote dialogue and mutual understanding between them and other Chinese people.
"Today should be a moment of joy, to celebrate freedom of speech. Instead, it is a day of sadness. Once again, this chair is empty, because in the world we are living, exercising our freedom of thought does not always mean being free."
Accepting the award during the ceremony in Strasbourg, Jewher Ilham said: “It is an honour to be at the European Parliament today to accept the Sakharov Prize on behalf of my father. I am grateful for the opportunity to tell his story, because he cannot tell it himself. To be honest with you, I do not know where my father is. 2017 was the last time my family received word about him.
“Today, there is no freedom for Uyghurs in China... Not at school, not in public, not even in private homes. My father, like most Uyghurs, has been labelled a violent extremist, with a disease that needs to be cured and a mind that needs to be washed.. It is under this false label of extremism that the government has put one million people – probably more – into 'concentration camps' where Uyghurs are forced to give up their religion, language and culture, where people are tortured and some have died."
Since April 2017, more than one million Uyghurs have been 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.
Jewher Ilham called for active support for her father’s cause “I ask you in this room and those who are listening, do you see a problem with the way the Chinese government is treating Uyghur people? If you see a problem, please work towards a solution."
President Sassoli called for Ilham Tohti's immediate and unconditional release and for the release of many other winners of the Sakharov Prize that are currently in prison and are being persecuted for defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
About the winner
Ilham Tohti is a proponent of dialogue and an advocate for the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China. In 2014, following a show trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on separatism-related charges. Despite this, he remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation.
The prize, consisting of a certificate and €50,000, was received by Jewher Ilhami, during the ceremony on 18 December 2019. Other finalists for the 2019 Sakharov Prize were also present or represented.
Brazilian human rights defenders and Kenyan students were the other finalists for this year's Sakharov Prize.
More on the Sakharov Prize
The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named in honour of the Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been awarded annually since 1988 to individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Last year the prize was awarded to the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who accepted the prize in person in November 2019 after his release from prison.