China | Release award-winning intellectual and human rights defender Ilham Tohti


China should immediately and unconditionally pardon and release human rights defender Ilham Tohti, who was today honoured in Geneva with the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for 2016 for his work to promote and protect human rights. 


Tohti was imprisoned for life by Chinese authorities in 2014 in connection with his advocacy for minority rights, including the rights of the Uyghur ethnic minority. His conviction to life imprisonment for separatism has been rightly condemned as politically motivated, marred by a lack of procedural fairness, and intended both to prevent and punish his peaceful human rights advocacy.

'Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for nothing more than being a dedicated scholar who cares deeply about his community. He was sentenced for having the audacity to claim a Uyghur identity in public discussion and debate on the serious consequences of Chinese ethnic minority policies,' said ISHR's Asia Programme Manager, Sarah M Brooks.

Starting from 1994, Tohti called for inter-religious dialogue and reform of policies in his home province of Xinjiang. His refusal to 'speak out less, mind [his] own business, and focus on making money' led to targeting and harassment by Chinese authorities, and even pressure from his own community to stop his work.

In addition to being recognised internationally, Ilham Tohti is also highly regarded by the human rights community within China. Prominent Chinese human rights defender Teng Biao says, 'Tohti is a modest, reasonable and honest scholar and defender of human rights. He does not hate, despair or suggest extreme approaches. Tohti is the conscience of the Uighur people.'

According to his daughter, '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.'

According to Ms Brooks, in addition to shining a spotlight on the situation of Tohti himself, the Martin Ennals Award also signals critical support and solidarity to other academics, lawyers and defenders whose insistence on the protection of human rights is fundamental to the future of the Chinese people. 'As the Chinese government's crackdown on any free thought - no matter how moderate - drags on, it is important for the international community to maintain high-level attention on the situation, and on the individuals who confront it daily,' Ms Brooks said.

The Martin Ennals Award seeks to honour defenders' courageous work and shine a light on their precarious situation. In addition to Award-winner Tohti, the Final Nominees in 2016 were the Zone 9 bloggers, social media activists charged with terrorism-related offences in Ethiopia for exercising their right to freedom of expression online, and Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer abducted and disappeared in Syria for her work to document violations and promote accountability.

The Final Nominees and Award Winner are chosen for the prestigious award by a jury comprised of representatives of leading international human rights NGOs.

'The work of each of the Final Nominees is representative of the courageous work of so many human rights defenders to champion the rights of victims and the vulnerable, to document and expose violations, and to promote accountability for perpetrators,' said ISHR Director and Martin Ennals Jury member Phil Lynch.

'The situation of each of the Final Nominees - criminalised, imprisoned, disappeared or exiled for their work - is also representative of the grave risks facing so many human rights defenders around the world. Like so many defenders, each of the Final Nominees has paid an unacceptable cost for challenging authoritarianism, and for speaking out for good governance, human rights and the rule of law,' Mr Lynch said.

ISHR congratulates Ilham Tohti on being recognised with the Martin Ennals Award and calls on the Chinese authorities to release him unconditionally and without delay.

Zone 9 Bloggers

Kality prison in Ethiopia, which holds many journalists and political prisoners, has 8 zones. Zone 9 selected their name as a symbol for Ethiopia as a whole where political freedoms are severely restricted. They write opinion pieces and feature articles that focus on the constitution, economic, educational and cultural issues. They document human rights abuses and violations of law by both state and non-state actors. Furthermore, they shed light on the situation of political prisoners in Ethiopia. Two weeks after creating their blog, it was blocked. Two years later six of its members were arrested and charged with terrorism. Although they have now been released, three are in exile while those still in Ethiopia are banned from travel.

They stated: 'We are extremely humbled to be nominated for the Martin Ennals Award. This recognition raises our visibility enough to increase our safety, and also shows that the World is the home of the same family. It is proof that when one part of the world is silenced, the rest will speak on behalf of it. This recognition will definitely motivate us to push forward on our struggle to create a better Ethiopia where human rights are respected.'

Razan Zaitouneh

A prominent human rights lawyer, activist, and journalist in Syria, Razan has dedicated her life to defending political prisoners, documenting crimes against humanity, and helping others free themselves from oppression. This resulted in a travel ban in 2002. Following the beginning of the conflict in 2011, she founded the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which documents the death toll and ill-treatment in Syria's prisons. With the VDC, she compiled lists of the detained, the executed, and the disappeared. On 9 December 2013, a group of masked gunmen stormed the VDC office in Douma, near Damascus, and kidnapped Razan along with her husband, Wael Hamada, and two colleagues. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

Her sister, Rana Zaitouneh said, 'Despite her absence, Razan continues to make an impact, inspiring others to stand against their oppressors in the quest for freedom. Her allegiance is to freedom from oppression and fear. And now her own freedom has been taken. Her voice has been silenced. Razan has always believed that all people are equal. She was determined that no one should be forgotten. I am resolved that she will not be forgotten.'

About the Award

The Martin Ennals Award is conferred annually to highlight the work of human rights defenders and provide protective publicity to defenders at risk. The Martin Ennals Jury comprises representatives of ten of the world's leading international human rights organisations:

  • Amnesty International
  • EWDE Germany
  • Front Line Defenders
  • Human Rights First
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Commission of Jurists
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

Further information about the Martin Ennals Awards, including biographical information and videos about the Final Nominees, is available here.


  • Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights, on or + 41 76 708 4738
  • Sarah M Brooks, Asia Programme Manager, International Service for Human Rights, on 
  • Michael Khambatta, Director of the Martin Ennals Foundation, on or +41 79 474 8208


  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Middle East and North Africa
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • China
  • Ethiopia
  • Syria