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Uighur dissident Ilham Tohti receives Vaclav Havel Prize

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Uyghur dissident Ilham Tohti on June 12, 2010 while teaching at the university. FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP

Jailed Uyghur dissident Ilham Tohti, 49, was awarded the Vaclav Havel Prize by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on Monday (30 September). He is the first Chinese to receive this award named in honor of the former Czech president and dissident. Ilham Tohti was honored in 2016 with the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. And he is one of the nominees for the Sakharov Prize 2019.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also «Let's award the Sakharov Prize to Ilham Tohti, activist of the Uyghur cause»

These international marks of recognition are precious: his wife, who lives in Beijing with two of his sons, has not been able to meet him for a long time. The Beijing lawyers who defended him were not detained by the family after the trial – under pressure from the authorities. "No news is filtering on his health, we do not know anything. Ilham Tohti's brothers in Xinjiang are undoubtedly under intense pressure to say nothing, otherwise they will not see him again. It is a voluntary strategy of the authorities: to act as if it did not exist ", explains the sinologist Marie Holzman, who regularly rings the alert on his case.

In addition, the eleven million Uighurs, who constitute the indigenous population of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the vast border territory of Central Asia, have been the target since 2017 of a policy of massive forced internment.

"Ilham Tohti is, as was Vaclav Havel, the symbol of dialogue," says Sophie Richardson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "However, any recognition of the Uighurs' efforts to address the discrimination and inequalities they face through dialogue is particularly welcome now, at a time when the Chinese authorities are criminalizing and repressing such efforts and arbitrarily less than one million Turkish-speaking Muslims in Xinjiang on the basis of their ethnic identity alone, " She continues. "Vaclav Havel has always inspired critical personalities in China, such as the Charter 08 (a manifesto for the democratization of China), inspired by Charter 77, and its main author, Liu Xiaobo, also an academic like Tohti ". The Nobel Peace Prize winner died in 2017 from cancer while serving an eleven-year prison sentence.

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