German award for Ilham Tohti sheds light on China’s Uighur abuse

Imprisoned Uighur rights activist Ilham Tohti has won the 2017 Weimar Human Rights award. Ulrich Delius from the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) spoke with DW about Tohti’s work and the significance of the award.

Ilham Tohti facing a trial (Reuters/CCTV via Reuters TV)

DW: Why is the Weimar Human Rights award important for shedding light on human rights issues in China and Tohti’s activism?

Ulrich Delius: The award is very important for human rights because Tohti is one of China’s most prominent political prisoners. He was sentenced to life in prison and has been incarcerated for almost four years. Even dedicated human rights activists can quickly be forgotten. That is why this award and this man are so enormously important.

Tohti is not only a committed human rights activist; he is someone who could be part of the solution regarding many problems in the multi-ethnic society of the People’s Republic of China.

Ulrich Delius from the Society of Oppressed PeoplesUlrich Delius: China has no interest in dialogue with Uighurs

Read more:Uighur scholar’s life sentence triggers widespread condemnation

How could Tohti, who at the time was teaching in Beijing, be sentenced to life in prison in 2014?

It was also hard for us to comprehend that he was charged with separatism – which means the violent separation of national territory from the country. This is something that he never did. He said, “I am Uighur, but I teach here at the Central University of Nationalities in the capital city and I try to be a mediator between cultures.” This meant that he was speaking to China’s majority population about Uighur concerns and what was making Uighurs upset. Tohti asked why Uighurs were calling for human rights and not receiving them. He asked why China’s autonomy law was not being applied in Xinjiang.

Tohti was a mediator between cultures and this is precisely why he seemed so dangerous in the eyes of Chinese authorities. They spent months researching him and more or less forced his students to make statements in order to put him behind bars.

For someone like myself, who has been working on China issues for more than 30 years, it was frightening to recognize that China officially has no interest in dialogue. It has no interest in settling tensions, but rather depends on these tensions. Why else would they lock this man up for life? Why, when he could have been the key for peace and stability in an unstable region?

Read more: China’s Xinjiang Muslims ‘require DNA samples’ for travel documents

Uigure Regimekritiker lebenslange Haft China Ilham Tohti (picture-alliance/Frederic J. Brown/afp/dpa)Tohti is one of China’s most prominent political prisoners

Are there any signs of possible leniency towards Tohti from Chinese authorities?

We don’t need to engage in false hopes with this. One only has to look at China’s official reaction towards the decision to award Tohti this prize. The Chinese embassy called the mayor of Weimar, and with an abusive tone, warned against burdening relations between China and Germany. (DW: The Chinese embassy did not respond to DW’s requests for comment)

After the city was not intimidated by this, the website of the Weimar Human Rights Award suddenly disappeared from the Internet. We are convinced that this can be traced back to Chinese hackers. And it shows that this man is simply considered to be a public enemy.

China is not afraid of Xinjiang breaking off from the rest of the county. They fear Tohti’s persistent calls for dialogue and for reconciliation between the various ethnic groups, the Han and the Uighurs. They fear his calls for the rule of law. If they only would listen, then the problems in this region would be drastically reduced.

Read more:The Hui – China’s preferred Muslims?

China Xinjiang Ürümqi Uiguren Protest (Getty Images/Guang Niu)Xinjiang is experiencing a massive level of government restriction

It is, however, undisputed that there have been terror attacks by radical Uighurs in recent years against Chinese in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

Tohti never justified this violence, but rather tried to explain it as a consequence of the continual disregard of Uighur human rights. These abuses include a de-facto prohibition on communication. Whether people are talking on the phone, on Skype or other social networks, it has become impossible for Uighurs to freely communicate without the feeling that they already have one foot in prison. Xinjiang is a region that is experiencing a massive level of restriction on Internet and communication freedom – along with freedom of movement. It is even on a greater level than we see in Tibet.

Right now Xinjiang is a technology hotspot for the state security apparatus. It is where they are testing out artificial intelligence, face recognition software, etc, in order to watch and control the movement of everyone living there.

For example, Uighurs are required to pass a special test to qualify for a driver’s license, because they are considered to be potential terrorists in the eyes of Chinese security authorities. And looking at the larger legal picture, there is no other region in China with so many legal proceedings on undermining state power.

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