Founding Member of the Ilham Tohti Initiative, in Support of Ilham Tohti’s Nomination for The Sakharov Prize
Exiled democracy activist Wu’er Kaixi presents an open letter to the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament in support of Ilham Tohti’s candidature for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought 2016.
I write to you on behalf of the Ilham Tohti Initiative to urge your support in nominating Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Ilham Tohti is the most respected intellectual Uyghur spokesperson in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Before being jailed for life in September 2014, Ilham Tohti strived to achieve dialogue and understanding between the Chinese and the Uyghurs – a Muslim-Turkic people who largely inhabit the PRC’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Uyghurs are subject to religious, cultural and political repression imposed by Beijing. Ilham Tohti’s voice was one of moderation and reconciliation. For this, he received a lifetime jail sentence.
For too long we have conveniently ignored the fact that the PRC’s values do not coincide with those of the civilized world – and let us remember that China not only jails its minorities; it jails anyone who defends human rights and gender rights, as well as lawyers and journalists who work in the interest of transparency.
In the face of a refugee crisis unprecedented since World War II, as Europe embraces values of tolerance and inclusiveness, the PRC continues to leverage Chinese nationalism to the cost of those on the peripheries it claims governance over – Uyghurs, Tibetans, the citizens of Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Beijing rejects religious, cultural, and political pluralism. As a result, Ilham Tohti, a moderate intellectual who advocated dialogue and mutual understanding, will spend the rest of his life in jail, and his voice will be silenced in China.
I too am a Uyghur. I have been in exile in exile since 1989. My parents have been denied passports that would allow them an opportunity to see me before they pass away. My crime was to be a leader of a student movement that called for political reform. Ilham Tohti’s crime was to to speak up for the Uyghur people’s right to a voice in the centrally planned policies that shape their lives. He hoped nothing more than to offer dialogue that would provide his people with a more inclusive role in an ethnically diverse China.
As a fellow Uyghur, I argue with experience that as much as any other individual in the world who is currently incarcerated for defending human dignity, Ilham Tohti deserves consideration as a nominee for theSakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The prize was established to recognize human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in particular the right to freedom of expression. I believe that Ilham Tohti meets those criteria. His nomination would send a message to China that the world will not forever bend to its desire for acceptance and political influence based on economic clout alone. If China wishes to be a global power broker, it needs to be a trusted partner in values that we commonly accept as civilized norms of behaviour.
Ignoring Ilham Tohti’s punishment for calling for multi-ethnic harmony is equivalent to allowing the PRC to continue to be an unfriendly global influencer, denying any public space for dialogue on any terms other than its narrow self interests.
I am not alone in calling for Ilham Tohti’s nomination. Ilham Tohti is a finalist in the Martin Ennals Award 2016. The Dalai Lama and Sakharov Prize laureate Hu Jia have called for his nomination for the Sakharov Prize. The European Union condemned his life sentence on the charge of “separatism” in September 2014, and in the same year he was awarded the Barbara Goldsmith “Freedom to Write” Award from the PEN America Center. Early this year, several hundred academics worldwide signed an Amnesty International open letter to PRC President Xi Jinping, condemning Ilham Tohti’s arrest. They wrote, “[Ilham Tohti]has consistently opposed violence and has worked peacefully to build bridges between ethnic communities in accordance with Chinese laws.”
A nuclear physicist turned opponent of a repressive state, Sakharov sacrificed himself to fight for human rights. Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-educated intellectual, did likewise, becoming a dissident by humbly calling for dialogue. Of course, all short-listed candidates for the Sakharov Prize deserve full consideration, but it is my profound belief that – in being punished for calling for ethnic inclusiveness – the European Union should give thought to the cause of a man who risked everything, and lost everything but his reputation, in a country the world appears to be increasingly fearful of angering, China.
It is easy to shout out in defence of the rights of those who defy regimes we all agree are a blight on global tolerance. But the challenge today is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who defy intolerant orthodoxy in states that enjoy vast global influence. The PRC is such a state, and the European Union is in a unique position to assert its values by acknowledging that Ilham Tohti would be honoured and welcomed in the birthplace of democracy; not silenced for life behind bars.
11 September, 2016