A Chinese academic, jailed for life two years ago for campaigning for the rights of the Muslim Uighur people, has won a prestigious annual human rights award, organisers said on Tuesday. Ilham Tohti, who is an ethnic Uighur, was selected from three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, whose jury is composed of 10 activist groups, including Amnesty International, where Ennals was an early secretary-general.
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“A renowned Uighur intellectual in China, Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese,” the jury said.
“He has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uighur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”
Tohti is China’s most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people, a Turkic-speaking people.
Many resent restrictions on their culture and religion, and complain they are denied economic opportunities amid an influx of majority Han Chinese into Xinjiang.
Rights advocates said at the time of his sentencing after a two-day trial on separatism charges in September 2014 that it sent a clear signal the government was determined to suppress dissent.
In Beijing, the government dismissed the award, saying Tohti’s “crimes are clear”.
“In the classroom, Ilham Tohti openly made heroes of terrorist extremists that conducted violent terror attacks. He also used his position as a lecturer to entice and coerce some people to form a group to promote and participate in East Turkestan separatist forces’ activities,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a media briefing.
“Ilham Tohti has nothing to do with human rights,” he said. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, the main Uighur exile group, called the award a “huge encouragement”.
“It is also a warning to the Chinese government that attacking a scholar who promotes universal values is absolutely mistaken and creates hate and conflict,” he said in an email message.
Other finalists were Syrian human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and the so-called Zone 9 Bloggers of Ethiopia. The award’s first recipient in 1994 was Chinese dissident Harry Wu.