SOFIA – An ethnic-Turkish Bulgarian deputy at the European Parliament has told RFE/RL that he believes China imposed sanctions on him because he helped an imprisoned ethnic-Uyghur economist receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
"I think it’s because of my active role in nominating Professor Ilham Tohti for the Sakharov Prize," Ilhan Kyuchyuk told RFE/RL when asked why he was among 10 European individuals blacklisted by Beijing on March 22.
A Chinese court in the far western Xinjiang region's capital, Urumqi, sentenced Tohti to life in prison in 2014 on charges of separatism after a two-day trial. Tohti -- a former university professor who became an outspoken critic of Beijing's policies toward Uyghurs -- had pleaded not guilty.
In 2019, the European Parliament voted to award Tohti the Sakharov Prize.
China’s Foreign Ministry announced that Kyuchyuk was on its tit-for-tat blacklist list after coordinated Western sanctions were imposed against Chinese officials and companies over the abuse of the rights of the mainly Muslim ethnic-Uyghur community in the Xinjiang region.
The Western sanctions -- imposed jointly on March 22 by the United States, the European Union, Britain, and Canada -- were the first such coordinated action against Beijing since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January.
Activists and UN rights experts say at least a million Muslims have been detained at camps in the remote region.
Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps. But faced with substantial evidence, it now claims the camps are there to provide vocational training. It also says the camps are needed to fight Islamic extremism.
In addition to Kyuchyuk, Beijing sanctioned four other members of the European Parliament – Reinhard Butikofer and Michael Gahler from Germany, Raphael Glucksmann from France, and Miriam Lexmann from Slovakia.
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Radio Free Radio/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.
Politicians from the Netherlands, Belgium, and Lithuania were also on Beijing’s sanctions list along with two scientists from Sweden.
The Chinese sanctions ban all 10 Europeans from entering China, Hong Kong, or China’s special administration region of Macao. Some companies and organizations the Europeans have connections with are also not allowed to operate in China.
Kyuchyuk is a member of a political party in Bulgaria called the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).
It was formed after the collapse of communism in response to a brutal crackdown by communist authorities during the 1980s against Bulgaria’s ethnic Turkish population.
Kyuchyuk told RFE/RL that he had lobbied for Tohti to receive the 2019 Sakharov Prize because “Ilham Tohti has always fought for both the majority and the minority to coexist. This is his philosophy -- living together. This is very close to me as a philosophy.”
“I am a person who has always said that there should be an active dialogue between the European Union and China, but this does not preclude an active dialogue on human rights and freedoms,” Kyuchyuk said.
"The information we receive [about Chinese policies] shows that an attempt is being made to erase the cultural and religious identity of the [Uyghur] population," he said.
Kyuchyuk also said that his support for "the protection of human rights and freedoms" does not mean he is supporting "calls for autonomy" by ethnic Uyghurs in China.
Kyuchyuk has called on Josep Borrell, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to raise the issue of China's rights abuses against Uyghurs during all of his meetings with Chinese officials.