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Uighur activist's daughter accepts EU rights prize

December 18, 2019

Ilham Tohti is serving a life sentence after Beijing accused him of trying to promote separatism. Thousands of Uighur Muslims are thought to be in concentration camps in China's Xinjiang province.

Sacharow-Preis für geistige Freiheit 2019 Ilham Tohti
Image: Reuters/V. Kessler

Jewher Ilham speaks with DW

Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uighur rights activist and academic, was awarded a top EU human rights accolade on Wednesday, the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought. Tohti's daughter Jewher Ilham accepted the award on her father's behalf as he is serving a life sentence in a Chinese prison for "separatism."

"It is unfortunate that he is not able to accept this award by himself," she said at a ceremony with EU lawmakers, who present the prize.

Until his imprisonment in 2014 on separatism-related charges, Tohti worked tirelessly to bring the plight of the Uighur Muslims in western China to the world's attention. In 2006, he set up the news site Uighur Online, which was shut down by the Chinese authorities who claimed it supported extremists. He has written extensively on Beijing's mistreatment of Uighurs and its attempts at forced assimilation.

Jewher Ilham speaks with DW

"My father never [said] a word about separating the country ... He never mentioned or committed a violent act before. So I'm very confident to say the charges from the Chinese government are absolutely ridiculous. My father always believed that if there is a problem we need to fix it. And he wanted to fix the problem," Jewher Ilham told DW ahead of the award ceremony.

Xinjiang 'of great political value'

It is not known how many Uighurs are in concentration camps in Xinjiang province, where most of them live. According to reports, anyone who speaks out against the Chinese government is sent to a "re-education program" and are not allowed to leave until authorities are convinced they will not criticize Beijing publicly again. Victims are scared to speak out because of possible retaliation on their families.

Tohti's daughter summarized the interest Beijing has in Xinjiang and why it has encouraged so many Han Chinese to move to the area: "The Uighur region is of great geopolitical value. It's one-sixth of the Chinese landmass but it only has 1% of the Chinese population, so it could also help with overcrowding."

She suggested that if the international community wants to help, they should: "Educate the younger generation about what is going on. [They could] help Chinese international students gain awareness of what is going on inside their own country because many Chinese students have no idea this is happening to the Uighur community. Also [they could impose] sanctions on companies [...] which import and export [goods] from those concentration camps. [They could place] visa restrictions on Chinese government officials."

Hannah Neumann, a German Green party politician and EU lawmaker, told DW she believed German companies should withdraw from Xinjiang if the situation continues as it has been.

"They should make it very, very, very clear that not in even a scrap of any part [of a product] has been touched by someone who is in one of these camps," Neumann said. " I expect what we have been demanding of German companies for some time now, that they always stand up for human rights."

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.