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Jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

More than 180 high-level officials and experts have nominated jailed Uyghur academic and blogger Ilham Tohti to receive the 2024 Nobel Peace Prize, citing his role as “the true symbol of the Uyghur people’s fight for freedom” under Chinese rule in Xinjiang.

The nomination includes signatures from ministers, parliamentarians, university rectors and professors from countries including Canada, Japan, Rwanda, Australia, Paraguay, Turkey and France – a “broad international coalition” which initiative leaders Vanessa Frangville of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, and Belgian MP Samuel Cogolati believe will bolster the 53-year-old Tohti’s chances at securing the award.

“At a time when the U.N. is denouncing ‘crimes against humanity’ in Xinjiang, it is our duty to break the silence towards Xi Jinping’s totalitarian regime and support the true symbol of the Uyghur people’s fight for freedom,” they said in a statement on Monday.

Supporters nominated Tohti days after the anniversary of a Dec. 9, 2021, ruling by an independent Uyghur Tribunal – composed of international legal experts, scholars, and NGO representatives – that China has perpetrated genocide against the Uyghur people.

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, 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.

But while Beijing has denounced the academic as a “separatist,” others have highlighted what they say is his commitment to peaceful interethnic dialogue between members of his ethnic group and China’s Han Chinese majority.

Tohti was shortlisted for the Peace Prize in 2020 and 2023.

Supporters of this year’s nomination include Kenneth Roth, former director of Human Rights Watch and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, and U.S. Congressman Chris Smith, who is also chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Two members of the Belgian federal government, the speaker of the Belgian senate, two political party leaders from France, the first member of Japan’s parliament of Uyghur origin, and a member of the U.K. House of Lords also lent their names to the nomination.

‘Unprecedented’ nomination

In an interview with RFA Uyghur, Cogolati called the initiative to nominate Tohti “unprecedented” because of the breadth of political views, backgrounds and global perspectives represented.

“This time, we really decided to mark the occasion by joining forces between the academic and political worlds,” he said. “Ilham Tohti has always been cited as a possible favorite for the next Nobel Peace Prize. This time, what’s really different is that we were able to join forces between not only members of parliament all around the world, but also with universities, with rectors, university directors and professors.”

From left: Enver Can, founder of İlham Tohti Initiative, Jewher Ilham, Ilham Tohti’s daughter, Belgian MP Samuel Cogolati and Free University of Brussels professor Vanessa Fangville are seen at a press conference on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (Samuel Cogolati)

Cogolati said that the international community has a “duty to raise their voice and to condemn the atrocities altogether” when China is working to “silence public intellectuals like Ilham Tohti.”

“He’s really a symbol of the fight of the people for freedom, but also for reconciliation, for peace and dialogue with Chinese people,” he said. “So that’s why, for us, it’s not only a fight for the recognition of the amazing academic talents and of the work of Ilham Tohti. But it is also a recognition of the fight of all Uyghurs around the world who are being persecuted by the totalitarian regime of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping.”

The Belgian lawmaker said the outsize influence China can exert on international institutions was not lost on him, noting that in 2010, after Norway’s Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to then-jailed Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, Beijing imposed trade sanctions on Oslo. Liu died from late-stage liver cancer in 2017 while serving an 11-year jail term for subversion.

“We really recognize the implications and the impact,” he said. “But what we say is that peace is more important. Life, dignity, and freedom for your people are more important.”

Withstanding Chinese pressure

Tohti’s daughter, Jewher Ilham, told RFA that a win for her father next year would “send a message to the Chinese government that my father has not been forgotten” and force Beijing to demonstrate proof of life for the long-jailed scholar.

Additionally, she said, awarding Tohti the Peace Prize would “prove to the Chinese government and the international community that the Nobel Peace Committee is a separate entity that would not be influenced by political pressure – whether it is from China or Norway.”

Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson agreed that the Nobel Committee is “capable of withstanding [the] kind of pressure” China exerted on it after Liu’s win.

“When Liu Xiabo won the Nobel Peace Prize. I think it was understood and felt not just as a win for him, but indeed for peaceful critics of the Chinese government all across the country and the world,” she said. “And I think it would probably have the same effect, not just for Uyghurs, but for all people who have suffered oppression at the hands of the Chinese government.”

“It would be an enormous boost to Uyghurs worldwide to have their community and somebody who’s a longtime leader of it be recognized for his extraordinary contributions to peaceful debate, to the idea of equality, to the preservation of a distinct Uyghur identity.”

Tohti has received more than 10 international human rights awards since his sentencing, including the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2016 and the Sakharov Award for “Freedom of Thought” in 2019.

Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.