11 October 2016 – PEN International welcomes the news that Uyghur scholar and PEN member Ilham Tohti, currently serving a life sentence in China, has been awarded the Martin Ennals Award, a major human rights prize and calls for his immediate release.
Announcing Tohti as the recipient of the award, the Martin Ennals Foundation said Ilham Tohti had spent ’two decades trying to foster dialogue and understanding’ between China’s Han majority and members of Xinjiang’s largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, of which he is a member.
’He has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uighur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression.’
‘In a free society, Ilham Tohti would be celebrated as a hero who has given voice to his people. But for China, this non-violent pacifist who has sought to promote understanding, represents a threat, and it has jailed him. His imprisonment diminishes China; his enforced silence acts as a constant reminder of the reality for freedom of expression in China. The Martin Ennals Award given to this very worthy recipient shows the world has not forgotten him and will not forget him – the chair is still empty.’ – Said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
Tohti is a public intellectual from China’s Uyghur minority and one the world’s foremost scholars on Uyghur issues. A frequent target of harassment by Chinese authorities for advocating for Uyghur rights, he was arrested in January 2014. He was reportedly held in shackles for 20 days and deprived of food for at the start of his detention, and was formally charged with ‘splittism’ on 20 February 2013 amid a crackdown on Chinese Uyghurs critical of the government. Convicted in September 2014, after an unfair trial in which he was denied adequate legal representation, Tohti’s appeal against his conviction and sentence was rejected on 21 November 2015.
Tohti has never promoted violence or separatism. In 2006, he co-founded the website Uyghur Online, aimed at promoting understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. However, his criticism of the Chinese authorities for their heavy-handed treatment of the Uyghur minority made him the target of on-going harassment. Following his initial arrest, the Bureau of Public Security for Urumqi alleged that Tohti had been using the website as a platform to recruit followers.
PEN International first began working on Tohti’s case in 2009, following his detention for speaking out about ethnic unrest that broke out in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), on 5 July 2009. Initially placed under house arrest, he was later transferred to an unknown location where he was kept incommunicado before being released six weeks later. Further harassment followed, including periods spent under house arrest.
Tohti is a member of Uyghur PEN and received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2014. He was an honorary Empty Chair at PEN International’s annual Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in 2014.
‘Ilham Tohti was arrested, shackled and imprisoned without a fair trial purely because he called for justice for the Uyghur minority. To silence such a passionate advocate for peace and cross-cultural understanding at a time when that is exactly what is needed in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is not just repugnant, but absurdly short-sighted too.’ – Margaret Atwood, member of the PEN International Writers Circle.
‘The fate of our colleague Ilham Tohti fills many people with sadness and disgust. Sadness, because in this way such an outstanding and peaceful voice is silenced. Disgust, because Ilham Tohti did nothing punishable. He builds bridges instead of destroying them, in service of his country. So I ask, with many others: release him, immediately and unconditionally!’ – Geert Mak, member of the PEN International Writers Circle.
‘To imprison a writer such as Ilham Tohti is to imprison freedom itself. Everyone loses. Tohti, of course, because he lives in confinement, but also those who put him there, who live in fear of what he has to say. Both the Uyghur and the Chinese would do better if Tohti was freed and the grievances of the Uyghur were addressed. Let’s start by freeing Ilham Tohti.’– Yann Martel, member of the PEN International Writers Circle.
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