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US lawmakers nominate jailed Uyghur professor, Hong Kong mogul for Nobel Peace Prize

Ilham Tohti, Jimmy Lai and two lawyers have been jailed by Chinese authorities for speaking out on human rights.

By Roseanne Gerin for RFA

February 1, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

The two leading members of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China have nominated prominent jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai and two Chinese human rights lawyers for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

In a Jan. 31 letter to the members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Rep. Chris Smith, chair of the commission, or CECC, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, co-chair, named Tohti, an outspoken economics professor who advocated the implementation of regional autonomy laws in China and researched Uyghur-Han Chinese relations. He also ran Uyghur Online, a website set up in 2006 that discussed Uyghur issues.

Chinese authorities arrested Tohti, now 54, on Jan. 15, 2014, and sentenced him to life in prison in September of that year after a two-day show trial on separatism-related charges. He has not been seen or heard from since 2017.

The CECC also nominated Hong Kong entrepreneur and democracy advocate Jimmy Lai and Chinese human rights lawyers Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their deep commitment to human rights and peace in China.

Lai, 76, founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily, a Chinese-language tabloid in Hong Kong renowned for its pro-democracy views and criticism of Beijing, pleaded not guilty on Jan. 2 to “sedition” and “collusion” under the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in 2020.

His trial began in late 2023 following over 1,100 days in jail, and has faced widespread international condemnation.

Chinese rights attorneys Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were jailed in April for attending a 2019 gathering of dissidents in the southeastern city of Xiamen.

“All four are arbitrarily detained, serving long sentences for exercising rights guaranteed them by international law,” Smith and Merkley said in their Jan. 31 letter to the Nobel Committee.   

Jewher Ilham, Tohti's daughter and a human rights activist, said she was pleased that the CECC decided to recognize and honor her father’s work.

“I am hopeful that nominations like these will shed greater light on the plight of our people,” she said in a statement. “The Nobel committee has an opportunity to signal the urgency of the human rights abuses in the Uyghur homeland which amounts to crimes against humanity and genocide and perhaps even help secure my father’s release.”

The nominations came a week after China’s human rights record was scrutinized at its fourth Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. During the review, Western nations, including the United States, criticized China’s treatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans and dissidents in Hong Kong.

“States and stakeholders submitted information regarding genocide and crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR); the often brutal dismantling of networks of human rights lawyers seeking legal and political reforms in China; and the imposition of a National Security Law in Hong Kong that has led to the unjust detention of over 1,000 people,” the CECC's letter said. 

“Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to these individuals would send a signal that the desire for peace and freedom of those living under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is no different than that expressed by billions of other people around the world,” it said.

In mid-January, U.S. State Department, lawmakers and human rights groups marked the 10th anniversary of Tohti’s arrest with renewed calls for China to release him, while his daughter urged Beijing to provide proof that he remains alive.

Tohti’s nomination for the 2024 Nobel Peace Prize has widespread support.

In December 2023, more than 180 high-level government officials, lawmakers and academics and experts also nominated him for the prize, citing his role as “the true symbol of the Uyghur people’s fight for freedom” under Chinese rule in Xinjiang.

Tohti was shortlisted for the Peace Prize in 2020 and 2023. He won the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2019.

Edited by Paul Eckert.



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