(New York, NY) – The European Union awarded its top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, to Ilham Tohti, a staunch defender of Uyghur rights unjustly sentenced to life in prison in 2014. PEN America honored Tohti with its 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and has led global efforts for his release. Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, released the following statement.

“PEN America is deeply gratified to see Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti honored with the 2019 Sakharov Prize. The European Parliament’s decision is a recognition of Tohti’s dedication to human rights, and a powerful statement that the world’s eyes remain on the Xinjiang region and on the brutal repression being inflicted on the Uyghur people by the Chinese state. A writer, academic, and the winner of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, Tohti has dedicated his life to promoting peaceful interethnic dialogue and understanding. For this he has been spuriously charged with separatism and sentenced to life in prison. But while Tohti’s courageous, undaunted fight for freedom and equality has made him a target for suppression by the Chinese government, for those everywhere who fight for liberty, it makes him a beacon – an inspiration in a time of growing repression around the world. We welcome the awarding of the Sakharov Prize to Ilham Tohti and continue to call for his immediate and unconditional release.”

Tohti is a Uyghur economist, writer, and professor who is a co-founder of the website Uyghur Online, which aimed to promote understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. After being prevented from leaving the country in 2013, Chinese officials formally detained him in February 2014. Tohti was charged with separatism and held incommunicado under inhumane treatment for months before he could meet his lawyer. On September 23, 2014, he was found guilty of “separatism,” and is currently serving a life sentence.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892