A group of leading rights organisations has awarded its annual prize for human rights defenders to imprisoned Chinese Muslim minority economics professor Ilham Tohti, shining new attention on a case that has brought strong international condemnation.
The Martin Ennals Award is bestowed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and eight other human rights groups. The award ceremony will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening.
Tohti was given a life sentence on charges of separatism in September 2014 after a two-day trial. A member of the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group, he taught at Beijing's Minzu University and was an outspoken critic of Beijing's ethnic policies in the far western region of Xinjiang. Tohti denied advocating separatism or violence.
Tohti has ‘sought reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese policies and Uyghur grievances. This is information the Chinese government has sought to keep behind a veil of silence,’ the group said in a statement, using an alternative spelling for Uighur.
‘He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated,’ it said.
Tohti's sentence brought statements of condemnation from numerous Western governments and the European Union, and in January this year several hundred academics petitioned China's authoritarian communist government to release him.
Many Uighurs say Chinese government policies and an influx of migrants belonging to China's majority Han ethnic group have threatened their culture and left them economically marginalized. Such sentiments are seen as driving occasional outbursts of violence, including deadly riots in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.
China's government had no immediate comment on the award, but generally denounces such accolades as part of a hazy foreign plot to smear China's reputation and undermine its Beijing's authority.
‘The award not only duly recognizes Ilham Tohti's courageous work promoting minority rights and dialogues between Hans and Uighurs, it also highlights the Chinese government increasingly harsh punishment against its critics,’ said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
‘Instead of reacting angrily to the news, the Chinese government should release Ilham Tohit and reverse its repressive policies in Xinjiang,’ Wang said.
Prevented from publishing, Tohti turned to the Internet, running the site Uyghurbiz.net to foster discussion about the economic, social and developmental issue Uighurs face.
Seven of Tohti's students were also sentenced in what was seen as a move to strengthen the government's case against him.
Authorities accused the professor and the students of forming a criminal gang that sought to split Xinjiang from China
This year's other finalists for the award were Ethiopian independent journalism collective Zone nine Bloggers, and Syrian human rights lawyer, activist and journalist Razan Zaitouneh.