Im­pris­oned Chi­nese mi­nor­ity scholar given hu­man rights award

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

GENEVA:

A group of ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions has awarded its an­nual prize for hu­man rights de­fend­ers to im­pris­oned Chi­nese Mus­lim mi­nor­ity eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor Il­ham To­hti, shin­ing new at­ten­tion on a case that has brought strong in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion.

The Martin En­nals Award is be­stowed by 10 rights groups in­clud­ing Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and Hu­man Rights Watch. A cer­e­mony hon­or­ing the award, which was founded in 1994, was tak­ing place in Geneva on Tues­day with his daugh­ter in at­ten­dance. To­hti, 46, was given a life sen­tence on charges of sep­a­ratism in Septem­ber 2014 af­ter a two-day trial. A mem­ber of the Tur­kic Mus­lim Uighur eth­nic group, he taught at Bei­jing’s Minzu Univer­sity and was an out­spo­ken critic of Bei­jing’s eth­nic poli­cies in the far west­ern re­gion of Xin­jiang.

Ad­vo­cat­ing sep­a­ratism and vi­o­lence

To­hti de­nied Bei­jing’s re­lent­less ac­cu­sa­tions of ad­vo­cat­ing sep­a­ratism and vi­o­lence. His daugh­ter Je­wher Il­ham said she hadn’t seen her fa­ther since they parted at the Bei­jing air­port in Fe­bru­ary 2013, but her rel­a­tives had vis­ited him in prison over the sum­mer. While he and the vis­it­ing rel­a­tives were barred by Chi­nese of­fi­cials from dis­cussing his treat­ment be­hind bars, To­hti had clearly lost weight, she said.

“My fam­ily vis­ited on July 7: They told me that he’s got­ten skin­nier - he lost 40 pounds - and all his hair turned gray,” she told re­porters ahead of the awards cer­e­mony. “He wasn’t al­lowed to say any­thing,” other than to dis­cuss gen­eral top­ics like “chil­dren, stud­ies, and life,” she said.

She said she didn’t ex­pect the award would worsen an al­ready bad sit­u­a­tion be­cause of the life sen­tence, or an­tic­i­pate that the govern­ment would re­tal­i­ate against the fam­ily. But she said she hoped the award would in­crease aware­ness about her fa­ther.

Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties could re­al­ize the in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to To­hti’s sit­u­a­tion, and “they are scared that their rep­u­ta­tion will get ru­ined,” said Il­ham, who is a stu­dent at In­di­ana Univer­sity in the United States. “Ei­ther it will have bet­ter ef­fects or maybe no change - they just ig­nore it - but I don’t think things can get worse.”

It could “make peo­ple be­lieve that what the Chi­nese govern­ment has been telling peo­ple is a lie,” she said, adding that her broader con­cern was that out­side ob­servers might lose at­ten­tive­ness to To­hti’s im­pris­on­ment long af­ter Tues­day’s prize cer­e­mony.

In a state­ment an­nounc­ing the award, the rights groups said To­hti has “sought rec­on­cil­i­a­tion by bring­ing to light re­pres­sive Chi­nese poli­cies and Uyghur griev­ances. This is in­for­ma­tion the Chi­nese govern­ment has sought to keep be­hind a veil of si­lence.” The state­ment used an al­ter­na­tive spell­ing for Uighur.

“He re­mains a voice of mod­er­a­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in spite of how he has been treated,” it said. Pre­vented from pub­lish­ing, To­hti turned to the in­ter­net, run­ning the site Uyghur­biz.net to foster dis­cus­sion about the eco­nomic, so­cial and de­vel­op­men­tal is­sues Uighurs face.

Seven of To­hti’s stu­dents were also sen­tenced in what was seen as a move to strengthen the govern­ment’s case against him.

Au­thor­i­ties ac­cused To­hti and his stu­dents of form­ing a crim­i­nal gang that sought to split Xin­jiang from China. To­hti’s sen­tence was one of the harsh­est handed down to a govern­ment critic in re­cent years and came amid a sweep­ing crack­down on dis­sent un­der Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. He was tried and im­pris­oned in Xin­jiang, more than 2,000 kilo­me­ters (1,250 miles) from Bei­jing, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive for his fam­ily to see him in brief bi­monthly vis­its.

To­hti’s trial and sen­tenc­ing brought state­ments of con­dem­na­tion from nu­mer­ous West­ern gov­ern­ments and the Euro­pean Union, and in Jan­uary sev­eral hun­dred aca­demics pe­ti­tioned China’s govern­ment to re­lease him.

In­tense fric­tion

Many pointed out that To­hti was a voice for mod­er­a­tion and un­der­stand­ing at a time of in­tense fric­tion be­tween Is­lam, the West and China. “The real shame of this sit­u­a­tion is that by elim­i­nat­ing the mod­er­ate voice of Il­ham To­hti, the Chi­nese govern­ment is in fact lay­ing the ground­work for the very ex­trem­ism it says it wants to pre­vent,” said Dick Oost­ing, chair­man of the foun­da­tion that presents the award, named af­ter a for­mer sec­re­tary gen­eral of Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

Many Uighurs say Chi­nese govern­ment poli­cies and an in­flux of mi­grants be­long­ing to China’s ma­jor­ity Han eth­nic group have threat­ened their cul­ture and left them eco­nom­i­cally marginal­ized. Such sen­ti­ments are seen as driv­ing oc­ca­sional out­bursts of vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing deadly ri­ots in the re­gional cap­i­tal of Urumqi in 2009.

At a reg­u­lar brief­ing, a Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman re­it­er­ated the au­thor­i­ties’ al­le­ga­tion that To­hti was in­cit­ing oth­ers to par­tic­i­pate in ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties. Geng Shuang said To­hti’s case was backed by ev­i­dence and “has noth­ing to do with hu­man rights.”

The govern­ment was en­raged by the award­ing of the 2010 No­bel Peace Prize to im­pris­oned pro-democ­racy ac­tivist Liu Xiaobo. China ac­cused Nor­way, which hosts the award cer­e­mony, of a de­lib­er­ate in­sult, and re­la­tions be­tween the two have yet to re­cover.

“The award not only duly rec­og­nizes Prof. Il­ham To­hti’s coura­geous work pro­mot­ing mi­nor­ity rights and di­a­logues be­tween Hans and Uighurs, it also high­lights the Chi­nese govern­ment’s in­creas­ingly harsh pun­ish­ment against its crit­ics,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based re­searcher with Hu­man Rights Watch. “In­stead of re­act­ing an­grily to the news, the Chi­nese govern­ment should re­lease Il­ham To­hti and re­verse its re­pres­sive poli­cies in Xin­jiang,” Wang said.

The other fi­nal­ists for the Martin En­nals award were Razan Zaitouneh, a rights ad­vo­cate and de­fender of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Syria who was kid­napped in De­cem­ber 2013 along with her hus­band and two col­leagues, and the Zone 9 Blog­gers of Ethiopia - an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism col­lec­tive that doc­u­ment cases of rights abuses there.

To­hti was one of five can­di­dates for the Euro­pean Union’s pres­ti­gious Sakharov Prize for hu­man rights awarded later this month, though he didn’t make the cut of three fi­nal­ists an­nounced Tues­day. —AP

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