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Ilham Tohti wins EU's Sakharov Prize

October 24, 2019

The shortlist for the EU's top human rights prize this year drew attention to the plight of the Uighur people in China, multifaceted rights violations in Brazil and the issue of female genital mutilation.

Ilham Tohti
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F.J. Brown

The European Parliament on Thursday awarded its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Ilham Tohti

Tohti is an economist fighting for the rights of China's Uighur minority and the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China. In 2014 the human rights defender was sentenced to life imprisonment for separatism-related charges.

The EU's top human rights award will be presented on December 18 at a ceremony in the French city of Strasbourg.

Earlier this month, Tohti received the Council of Europe's Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize.

Read more: Action, not outcry will save the Amazon

'Recognizing the suffering'

The award recognizes the "suffering that Uighurs have gone through," Tohti's daughter told DW. She welcomed the gesture as a reflection of the EU's position.

"Every day I wake up worrying about my family members in China, and of course, I'm afraid," said Jewher Ilham, who is now living in the US. "When my dad first started speaking up for the Uighurs, he knew he could end up in prison. But he decided to take on this fight and continue on for other people's sake." 

Tohti awarded Sakharov Prize

Who were the other finalists?

Three notable human rights defenders from Brazil were also put forward, including Claudelice Silva dos Santos, Chief Raoni and murdered activist Marielle Franco

Franco, a 38-year-old Rio de Janeiro councilor who fought for women's rights, Afro-Brazilian and LGBT rights, was gunned down along with her driver in March last year, after campaigning against police brutality and extrajudicial killings.

Silva dos Santos became an environmentalist and human rights defender after her brother and sister-in-law were killed for advocating against illegal logging and deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforest. 

Chief Raoni, the indigenous leader of the Kayapo people and an environmentalist, has been fighting for four decades to save the Amazon forest and to protect indigenous cultures and ways of living. 

From Kenya, a group of five students were nominated for their work combating female genital mutilation (FGM) through their app — the i-Cut. Known as The Restorers, group members Stacy Owino, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno and Ivy Akinyi developed the app to make it easier for women to seek help, find a rescue center or report FGM to authorities. 

Read more: Opinion: Human rights come first

Brazil: Indigenous peoples show the way

Who were the other nominees?

Another Brazilian, Jean Wyllys, made the shortlist. A journalist, lecturer and politician, he is the country's first gay activist to win a seat in Congress. During his two mandates, Wyllys tabled several laws including those on equal civil marriage and the legislation of abortion. 

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny completed the list. His criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin has sparked anti-corruption rallies across the country. He was prevented from running in the 2018 presidential election and has been jailed three times.

2018 laureate 

Last year's winner was Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov who was released from prison in September's   Ukraine-Russia prison swap after serving five years. Sentsov was an opponent of Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, his homeland, and was jailed for conspiracy to commit terrorist attacks in the region. 

Read more: Growing discontent in Moscow poses challenge to Kremlin

What is the Sakharov Prize?

Named after the Soviet dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, the prize was set up in 1988 to recognize individuals or organizations in the fight for human rights and freedom. The €50,000 ($56,000) prize is given out every year. 

mvb/rt (AFP, dpa)

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