Renowned Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti selected as 2016 Martin Ennals Award Laureate

Selected by a jury of 10 global human rights organizations, including the ICJ, Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Detained in China, he could not travel to collect his prize in Geneva.

A renowned Uyghur intellectual in China, Ilham Tohti (photo) has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

In 1994 he began to write about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, which led to official surveillance.

From 1999 to 2003 he was barred from teaching.

Since then the authorities have also made it impossible for him to publish in normal venues.

As a response, he turned to the Internet to broaden public awareness of the economic, social and developmental issues confronting the Uyghurs.

In 2006 he established, a Chinese-language site, to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Over the course of its existence, it has been shut down periodically, and people writing for it have been harassed.

In 2009, he was arrested for several weeks after posting information on Uyghurs who had been arrested, killed and “disappeared” during and after protests.

In the following years he was periodically subjected to house arrest, and in 2013, while bound to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University, USA, he was detained at the airport and prevented from leaving China.

On January 15, 2014, Ilham Tohti was arrested on charges of separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment, after a two-day trial.

Numerous statements were issued by Western governments and the European Union condemning his trial and sentence, and in early 2016 several hundred academics petitioned the Chinese leadership for his release.

Upon his nomination as a Finalist for the Martin Ennals Award earlier this year, his daughter stated: “My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang: Words; spoken, written, distributed, and posted. This is all he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China found so threatening. A person like him doesn’t deserve to be in prison for even a day.”

Martin Ennals Foundation Chair Dick Oosting said: “The real shame of this situation is that by eliminating the moderate voice of Ilham Tohti the Chinese Government is in fact laying the groundwork for the very extremism it says it wants to prevent.”

The two other finalists received Martin Ennals Prizes.

Zone 9 Bloggers (Ethiopia) are nine young activists who called themselves ‘Zone 9’ as a symbol for Ethiopia as a whole (Kality prison in Ethiopia, has 8 zones and holds many journalists and political prisoners).

They document human rights abuses and shed light on the situation of political prisoners in Ethiopia.

Six of its members were arrested and charged with terrorism.

Although they have now been released, three are in exile while four of the six remaining in Ethiopia are still facing charges and banned from travel.

Razan Zaitouneh (Syria) has dedicated her life to defending political prisoners, documenting violations, and helping others free themselves from oppression.

She founded the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which documents the death toll and ill-treatment in Syria’s prisons.

She had started to cover all sides in the conflict when she was kidnapped, alongside with her husband and two colleagues, on 9 December 2013. Her whereabouts remain unknown.


The “Nobel Prize of Human Rights”, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA) is a unique collaboration among ten of the world’s leading human rights organizations to give protection to human rights defenders worldwide.

Strongly supported by the City of Geneva, the award is given to Human Rights Defenders who have shown deep commitment and face great personal risk. Its aim is to provide protection through international recognition.

The Jury is composed of the following NGOs: ICJ, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Int’l Federation for Human Rights, World Organisation Against Torture, Front Line Defenders, EWDE Germany, International Service for Human Rights, and HURIDOCS.


Michael Khambatta, Director, Martin Ennals Foundation, t: +41 79 474 8208, e: khambatta(a)

Olivier van Bogaert, Director, ICJ Media and Communications, and ICJ Representative on the MEA Jury, t: +41 22 979 38 08, e: olivier.vanbogaert(a)

china-mea-laureate-2016-news-press-releases-2016-chi (full text in Chinese, PDF)

Watch the Martin Ennals Award Ceremony 2016:

Watch the Ilham Tohti movie:


Translate »