Ilham Tohti announced as 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Blog post by Katherine Mars.

This past week, the European Parliament announced the winner of the 2019 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Ilham Tohti. Named after Andrei Sakharov, a USSR physicist, dissident, and human rights activist, this prize is the highest award recognizing human rights defenders given by the European Union. Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), considered the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, was concerned about the moral and political consequences of nuclear weapons and became a strong advocate against the nuclear arms race in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s, he co-founded the USSR Committee on Human Rights and soon became a critic of the Soviet regime and petitioned for the release of dissidents and fought for fundamental human rights. Although he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, he was unable to receive his award in person and was exiled to Gorky in 1980, where he lived under close police supervision. To honor his lifetime of advocacy and activism for human rights, the European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1988.

The prize recognizes individuals, groups, and organizations who are frontline activists and advocated for the protection of human rights in their local communities and around the world. The selection process involves multiple rounds of candidate consideration with several different committees, specifically focusing on freedom of expression, rights of minorities, respect for international law, development of democracy, and implementation of the rule of law. The award has honored a myriad of activists, ranging from a cartoonist to civil society activists to political dissidents to mothers and wives. The prize is accompanied by EUR 50,000 endowment for the winner.

The European Parliament selected Ilham Tohti from a shortlist of candidates that also included environmental and LGBTQIA+ activists from Brazil and Kenyan schoolgirls who developed an app to fight female genital mutilation. Tohti is an economics professor and avid defender of human rights for China’s Uyghur population. As an ethnic and religious minority, Uyghurs have been victims of extreme oppression and discrimination by the Chinese government. Over 1 million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained and forced to renounce their religious beliefs and ethnic identity and pledge loyalty to the Chinese government since 2017.

Tohti has been an advocate for this population for over two decades and has been declared a separatist by the Chinese government due to his work. He was sentenced to life in prison after a grossly unfair and dishonest trial in 2014 due to his activism but remains a voice of hope for improving relations between the Uyghur people and the rest of the Chinese population. His work is clearly relevant to the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought because it works to open dialogue between a minority population and a majority population as well as combat a repressive government that is arresting its citizens for non-violent dissent and religious and ethnic differences. Tohti has been awarded or nominated for many international prizes, including the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2018 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director who was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 after an unfair trial found him guilty of plotting terrorist acts against Russian ‘de facto’ rule in Crimea. Both Tohti and Sentsov are human rights defenders that advocate for minority rights against oppressive governments and have been unfairly detained for their work. This prize has the ability to legitimize advocacy work on an international stage, helping to raise awareness and possibly pressure repressive governments to lessen their oppression.

The power of this award is deeply embedded in its ability to pressure governments to address their domestic human rights concerns. The Chinese government has a long history of human rights violations and the oppression of the Uyghur population and those in the Xinjiang region is just the most recent chapter in their book of injustice. The Chinese government has created reeducation camps and are arbitrarily arresting Uyghurs, cloaking the camps in secrecy despite the government’s vow to be more transparent. These camps have drawn international attention and criticism, including comments from the Vice President of the United States Mike Pence stating that the camps are inhumane and Chinese censorship is unethical. Veiled as a “war on terror”, this systemic targeting of Uyghurs utilizes the latest technology to exclude the population from accessing public services in the Xinjiang region. The Chinese government is facing increased criticism as protests in Hong Kong occur concurrently with the continued persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. However, it is still unclear whether international pressure alone will be enough to propel the Chinese Communist Party to address these human rights violations or if domestic pressure will need to rise to a boiling point for any real change to occur.

For additional information about the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, visit

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