US lawmakers nominate jailed Uygur Ilham Tohti for Nobel Peace Prize, seeking global pressure on China

  • Academic has been serving a life sentence since 2014 on separatism-related charges
  • The move is the latest effort by US lawmakers to draw attention to the mass internment of Uygurs and other alleged human rights abuses in China
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2019, 6:35am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2019, 2:31pm

US lawmakers nominated an imprisoned Uygur academic for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize on Tuesday in a bid to pressure China to stop its crackdown on the minority group.

Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uygur economist, writer, and professor at Minzu University in Beijing, has been serving a life sentence since 2014 on separatism-related charges.

Tohti had been vocal about the need to reduce tensions in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, asking Beijing to abide by the region’s existing laws, reduce economic discrimination and establish a legal system.

A bipartisan group of 13 US lawmakers signed the letter of nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize committee in Oslo, Norway. The group, led by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Representative Christopher Smith, Republican of New Jersey, included Republican Senator Cory Gardner; Republican Representative Mike Gallagher; Independent Senator Bernie Sanders; Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal, Jeff Merkley, Chris Van Hollen and Sherrod Brown; and Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna, Jim McGovern, Jamie Raskin and Thomas Suozzi.

“This nomination could not be more timely as the Chinese government and Communist Party continue to perpetrate gross human rights violations with over a million Uygurs and other ethnic minority Muslims detained in ‘political re-education’ camps,” Rubio said.

The peace-prize nomination was the latest effort by US lawmakers to draw attention to the mass internment of Uygurs and other alleged human rights abuses in China. Two weeks ago, Representatives Smith and Suozzi introduced a bill – the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act – to empower the State Department, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to hold accountable Chinese officials who intimidate Uygurs overseas.

More than a million ethnic Uygurs and other largely Muslim ethnic groups are reported to be detained in extrajudicial internment camps in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China, a crackdown that began in early 2017 and that government authorities have termed an anti-terrorist measure.

There have been reports that the camps have featured torture and forced labour, with possible export of goods made by forced labour to the US market.

Speaking out: Uygurs in the US break silence on China’s crackdown

Official statements from Chinese authorities, after scrutiny by the United Nations and other international bodies, have recently shifted from denial to justification, arguing that re-education is needed to combat the spread of extremist religious ideology and terrorism.

“It’s encouraging to see that the issue is attracting more interest,” said Sean Roberts, who has studied the Uygur community for decades.

“For the Congress, this could be a particular opportunity to highlight what’s happening inside Xinjiang right now,” said Roberts, the director of the International Development Studies Programme at George Washington University.

“It could also be used to apply pressure on China to respond why this person, who certainly is anything but a separatist, was given a very extreme sentence.”

Roberts was one of 278 scholars from 26 countries who signed a statement in November, calling on Beijing to abolish its “transformation through education” campaign against China’s ethnic Uygur population, and appealed for increased diplomatic and legislative pressure on the Chinese government over the matter.

Roberts acknowledged that the US government’s increased attention to China’s Uygur crackdown was of great benefit to the ethnic minority and human rights generally, but he noted there was a risk that “this be used for other political purposes, for example, as the US tries to resolve the trade disputes”.

If Tohti were awarded the peace prize, his imprisonment would draw global attention and exert more pressure on Beijing to release him.

In 2010, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, though he was serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” and was not permitted to attend the awards ceremony.

‘No coincidence’: Liu Xia released as China seeks united trade front with Germany

Even so, governments around the world rallied on his behalf. Liu died from lung cancer while still in custody in 2017, but last year his widow, Liu Xia, fled Beijing to Germany after spending almost eight years under house arrest.

Comparing Tohti and Liu, Roberts said the fact that Tohti had received a life sentence – just short of a death penalty – was “unconscionable”.

“It’s reflective of the current policy China has towards Uygurs,” he said. “There is no tolerance for any political voice to be heard.”