The European Parliament gave on Thursday its annual Sakharov Prize for the defense of human rights to Ilham Tohti, its president David Sassoli said, a blow to China where the Uighur activist is serving a life sentence on charges of separatism.
Tohti, an economics professor and Uighur rights advocate, has been in jail since 2014. The European Parliament chose him for his activity to “foster dialogue” between Chinese people and the Uighur Muslim minority who mostly live in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
“The parliament calls on the Chinese authorities to release him immediately,” Sassoli told lawmakers at a plenary sitting in Strasbourg.
The prize is likely to infuriate China. Beijing has lashed out at any criticism of its policies in Xinjiang, where the government has faced international opprobrium for placing up to a million Uighurs in what Beijing calls de-radicalization facilities.
Tohti, an ethnic Uighur, has criticized the government for not giving Xinjiang and its Turkic-speaking Uighurs more autonomy.
China has said Xinjiang faces a threat from Islamist militants and separatists. It rejects all accusations of mistreatment and denies mass internment, although Chinese officials have said some citizens guilty of minor offences were being sent to vocational centers to work.
The EU parliament’s prize, named after the late Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, has been awarded annually since 1988 to honor individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.
“I hope this can bring him some peace,” Li Fangping, the lawyer who represented Tohti at his trial in 2014, told Reuters.
But he added: “I think it will be very hard for him to learn of this news.” China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the prize.
Phil Bennion, a British Liberal Democrat member of the European parliament, said while they were happy he had won the prize, they also could not be sure he would get the news.
“He has been in solitary confinement since his imprisonment in 2014, and for the last 2 years has been denied visiting rights by the Chinese authorities. Even his family has not seen him since 2017,” he said.