More than a dozen bipartisan U.S. lawmakers have nominated jailed Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti to receive the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, citing his commitment to peaceful interethnic dialogue between members of his ethnic group and China’s Han Chinese majority.
An outspoken economics professor who regularly highlighted the religious and cultural persecution of the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on Sept. 23, 2014 following a two-day show trial on charges of promoting separatism.
The court decision cited Tohti’s criticism of Beijing’s ethnic policies, his interviews with overseas media outlets, and his work founding and running the Chinese-language website Uighurbiz.net, which was shut down by Chinese authorities in 2014.
In a letter dated Jan. 29, a group of 13 U.S. lawmakers including Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, who head the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, called on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo to consider Tohti for the prestigious award, saying that amid an ongoing crackdown in the XUAR, “voices like Professor Tohti’s are needed more than ever.”
The lawmakers cited the XUAR’s network of political “re-education camps,” where authorities are believed to have detained up to 1.1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas throughout the region since April 2017 “in possibly the largest mass internment of an ethnic minority population in the world today.”
They also highlighted “an unprecedented campaign of pervasive surveillance” that includes mandatory “homestays” by Communist Party officials in Uyghur and Kazakh homes in the XUAR, “highly disproportionate rates of arrest” and detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the region, and a targeting of intellectuals and other prominent members of the Uyghur community.
In 2011, high-ranking Chinese officials had sought out Tohti’s advice on Beijing’s policies in the XUAR, but rejected a paper he wrote detailing the difficulties faced by Uyghurs in the region and how they could be addressed.
Authorities in the XUAR went on to institute a crackdown on intellectuals and others voices of dissent in 2013, following the appointment of Chinese President Xi Jinping.