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EU Lawmakers Award Jailed Uyghur Activist 2019 Sakharov Award

Ilham Tohti

BRUSSELS -- The European Parliament has awarded its 2019 Sakharov Prize to Ilham Tohti, the jailed advocate for China’s Uyghur minority.

The legislature’s president, David Sassoli, announced the award on October 24 with a call for Chinese authorities to release Tohti “immediately.”

Tohti, who is serving a life sentence on separatism-related charges, was nominated together with the Kenyan group The Restorers -- consisting of five students engaged in fighting female genital mutilation -- and three Brazilian human rights activists fighting against the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest.

The awarding of the prize to Tohti is likely to anger China, which has bristled at any criticism over the issue.

Some 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims are believed to be held in facilities in Xinjiang that China says are reeducation and training centers but which activists call mass detention camps.

China, confronted with growing international condemnation for its actions in Xinjiang, has said recently that it is trying to stave off extremism in the remote western region after "absurd preachings" from Islamist extremists there had turned some people into "murderous devils."

The annual prize is named after the Soviet physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov and was established in 1988 by the European parliament to honor individuals and organizations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Last year's winner, the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, has yet to collect the prize but is expected to do so at a ceremony in Strasbourg. Sentsov was released from Russian custody earlier this year as part of a prisoner swap with Ukraine.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.