Jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti wins human rights award

Chinese minority activist was imprisoned for life two years ago for ‘inciting separatism’

Imprisoned Chinese activist Ilham Tohti pictured before a classroom lecture in Beijing in 2010. He has won the 2016 Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Imprisoned Chinese activist Ilham Tohti pictured before a classroom lecture in Beijing in 2010. He has won the 2016 Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

 

Imprisoned Chinese activist Ilham Tohti, who was jailed two years ago for campaigning for the rights of Uighurs in restive Xinjiang province, has won the 2016 Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders.

Mr Tohti was selected by a jury of 10 global human rights groups, including Ireland’s Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

“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 in a statement.

“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,” it said.

Mr Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2014 for promoting separatism, in the harshest sentence handed out to a dissident in China for many years.

The economics professor was sentenced amid intensified violence in Xinjiang, which the central government has blamed on Islamist militants and separatists.

Long seen as a moderate, Mr Tohti insisted that his goal was to build mutual trust between the largely Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang, where Han Chinese now compose over 40 per cent of the population, but where the Uighurs chafe against rule by Beijing. China has always insisted Xinjiang is part of its territory.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular news briefing that Mr 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,” Mr Geng said.

“Ilham Tohti has nothing to do with human rights,” he said.

The award is named for Ennals, who was an early secretary general of Amnesty International, and is given to human rights defenders who have shown “deep commitment and face great personal risk”.

The other finalists were Syrian human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh and the Zone 9 group of bloggers from Ethiopia.

On learning of his nomination for the prize earlier this year, Mr Tohti’s daughter said: “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.”

Mr Tohti is also one of four candidates shortlisted for the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights due to be awarded later this month.

The European Union, the United Nations and the United States all condemned Mr Tohti’s sentence. The award ceremony takes place in Geneva on Tuesday evening.

(Additional reporting: Reuters)