Who is Tohti?
"I hope China's government will resolve the ethnic issue through law and dialogue," Tohti repeatedly said during an interview before his detention.
He hails from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and taught at a university in Beijing. For many years, he called for reconciliation and mutual understanding between Uighurs and the Han majority. He has also proposed through his website and overseas media concrete ways for the government to turn its ethnic policy around. The detention of Tohti -- a moderate who was trying to settle the issue within China's political system -- sent shockwaves among liberal intellectuals in the country.
Back then, violent incidents blamed on Uighurs occurred across China one after another, as authorities oppressed them increasingly severely. Every time such an incident hit, Beijing called it an "act of terrorism" by Uighur separatists and stepped up its brutal rule in the autonomous region.
"Many Uighurs are in despair and do not know what to do," said Tohti. "Beijing is making light of our identity, such as our language and culture, and stripping us of our economic and political status. The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is just like a 'Han autonomous region.' The situation will get even worse unless the government takes a fresh look at its ethnic policy and decides to use wisdom to revise it."
Tohti sometimes strongly criticized the government, as authorities stepped up their drive to contain Uighur discontent using force. He said, "It may take time, but I want the government to listen to our voices with a good heart and respect, and adjust its ethnic policy." He believed it would be possible to settle the issue through rational dialogue.
Why was Tohti arrested?
Why was Tohti, a known moderate, detained? The Chinese government says he damaged the stability of the nation by calling for Uighur independence alongside foreign forces working for that cause. But that explanation is not convincing, given that Tohti has always opposed independence.
It's hard to pinpoint the cause of Beijing's fear of Tohti. He often criticized the government harshly, both online and through foreign media, so he was surely a nuisance to the government. There are very few intellectuals like Tohti in China, where people who speak openly about their opposition to the government's views on ethnic minorities are labeled terrorists.
One theory is that Chinese authorities detained Tohti because they considered him the voice of the Uighurs and wanted to deprive them of that voice. They temporarily detained Tohti in 2009 when a series of riots occurred in Urumqi. He was then placed under the close watch of national security officers. Two months before his 2014 detention, his car was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by the officers. They told him no one would care if Tohti died. His wife and two children were also in the car. As the harassment by the authorities worsened, Tohti felt that he might soon be detained.
"They can put me in the prison if that's what they want," he said in an interview. "But I won't stop my campaign."
Even with that realization, the life sentence handed down to him must have come as a shock.
What could change now?
Beijing reacted sharply to the news of Tohti's award. A spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry urged the EU not to intervene in China's domestic affairs and to respect the country's laws, saying the EU should not side with a terrorist.
But there are a few things that could change, including how he will be treated in prison.
The day after the announcement of the award was Tohti's 50th birthday. His daughter Jewher, who lives in the United States, told Radio Free Asia that family members in China have not been allowed to see him since 2017. She added that they don't even know where he is being detained. Amid concerns about his health, it's expected that his conditions may improve, possibly including meetings with his family and lawyers.
In addition, Tohti could become the new Liu Xiaobo. Liu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and died two years ago, was given an 11-year prison sentence for criticizing the Communists' one-party rule. He never gave up on his fight for freedom and democracy for China till the very end, leaving a strong impression on people the world over. Tohti winning the Sakharov Prize is expected to make him a symbol of China's ethnic issues and boost his leadership, especially among Uighurs both inside and outside China.
Lastly, the world's interest in China's ethnic issues can only increase. The Uighurs' human rights have continued to be eroded since Tohti's detention nearly six years ago. US and international human rights groups say as many as one million Uighurs have been detained at camps in China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and given ideological education on the pretext of counterterrorism. Amid suspected grave human rights violations, calls are expected to grow for a credible explanation from Beijing.
The award ceremony for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought takes place on December 18 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.