Uighur activist Ilham Tohti awarded EU Sakharov prize 2019

"His goal was always to promote dialogue"

Imprisoned Uighur human rights activist Ilham Tohti has been awarded the Sakharov prize 2019 for human rights by the EU Parliament. His daughter Jewher Ilham, who lives in the U.S., will receive the prize on his behalf and spoke to Max Sander ahead of the ceremony

Ms. Ilham, when was the last time you heard from your father? Do you have any idea how he's doing now?

Jewher Ilham: The last time I saw my father in person with was in 2013, and the last time I talked to my father was in 2014. The last time I heard about my father was in 2017 and that was also the last time my family was able to visit him.

And that was also the time when the so-called "re-education camp" started. Unfortunately, I don't know how my father is doing. I don't know if he's still being locked up in the same prison. I don't know if he's doing okay physically, mentally. I don't even know if he's still alive.

Your father was convicted on separatism charges, but his goal was always to promote dialogue, to promote peace between Uighurs and Han Chinese. Could you tell us a little bit more about the future he envisioned?

Ilham: 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.

Imprisoned Uighur civil rights activist Ilham Tohti (photo: picture-alliance/AFP/dpa)
Prize in absentia: Ilham Tohti, a well-known Uighur and a moderate critic of Beijing's policy towards the country's Muslim minority, was found guilty of "separatism" and sentenced to life in prison in 2014, despite the fact that he had always worked to improve relations between Uighurs and Han Chinese and was against breaking up the country

He was seeing a lot of problems and issues between Han Chinese and Uighurs. He realised all those issues were caused by a lack of understanding, and he was hoping that by fostering dialogue and gaining understanding, it could help harmony between Han Chinese and Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups, other religious groups in China.

He was hoping Uighur kids could go to school as they wish, that they could choose to learn the Uighur language or Han Chinese or both, as they wish. He was hoping students who graduated from university wouldn't be discriminated against because of their identity, that they wouldn't fail a job interview just because they are Uighurs. He was also hoping that Uighurs could be free to practice religion the way they want, that they could wear a hijab, wear a beard, wear a doppa – which is the traditional Uighur hat – whenever they want and they could pray or fast whenever they need or whenever they want to. This was his vision.

And actually it's going in the opposite direction right now. The Chinese government is leading a massive crackdown on Xinjiang province and the Uighur community. There are one to two million Uighurs in so-called re-education camps, where they face brainwashing and forced labour. Why is the Chinese government doing this?

Ilham: First of all I don't work for the Chinese government. I can only guess. There could be many reasons, including violent attacks that happened in the past, not to mention a lack of understanding.

Also, the Uighur region is of great geopolitical value. It's one sixth of the Chinese land mass but it only has one percent of the Chinese population, so it could also help with overcrowding. Over the past few decades, China has been migrating Han Chinese to the region. But I don't think any of those reasons justify these cruel acts against Uighurs.

Your father Ilham Tohti was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament. This sends a strong message of solidarity. But is it enough? What kind of pressure does the international community need to apply to achieve actual change?

Ilham: The international community and government leaders could, for example, 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 that import and export goods from those concentration camps. They could place visa restrictions on Chinese government officials involved with the concentration camps.

Interview conducted by Max Zander

© Deutsche Welle 2019

 

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