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 rights groups. The award ceremony takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening.
Tohti, 46, was given a life sentence on charges of separatism in September 2014 after a two-day trial. A member of the Turkic Muslim Uygur 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. But he denied Beijing’s relentless accusations of advocating separatism and violence.
Tohti had “sought reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese policies and Uygur grievances. This is information the Chinese government has sought to keep behind a veil of silence,” the group said in a statement.
“He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated,” it said.
Prevented from publishing, Tohti turned to the internet, running the site Uyghurbiz.net to foster discussion about the economic, social and developmental issues Uygurs 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 Tohti and his students of forming a criminal gang that sought to split Xinjiang from China.
Tohti’s sentence was one of the harshest handed down to a government critic in recent years and came amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping’s administration. He was tried and imprisoned in Xinjiang, more than 2,000km from Beijing, making it difficult and expensive for his family to see him in brief bi-monthly visits.
Tohti’s trial and sentencing 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 pointed out that Tohti was a voice for moderation and understanding at a time of intense friction between Islam, the West and China.
“The real shame of this situation is that by eliminating the moderate voice of Ilham Tohti, the Chinese government is in fact laying the groundwork for the very extremism it says it wants to prevent,” said Dick Oosting, chairman of the foundation that presents the award, named after a former secretary general of Amnesty International.
Many Uighurs say Beijing’s policies and an influx of migrants belonging to China’s majority Han ethnic group have threatened their culture and left them economically marginalised. Such sentiments are seen as driving occasional outbursts of violence, including deadly riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, in 2009.
At a regular briefing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated the authorities’ allegation that Tohti was inciting others to participate in terrorist activities. Geng Shuang said Tohti’s case was backed by evidence and “has nothing to do with human rights”.
The government was enraged by the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. China accused Norway, which hosts the award ceremony, of a deliberate insult, and relations between the two have yet to recover.
“The award not only duly recognises Professor Ilham Tohti’s courageous work promoting minority rights and dialogue between Hans and Uygurs, it also highlights the Chinese government’s increasingly harsh punishment of 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 Tohti and reverse its repressive policies in Xinjiang,” Wang said.
This year’s other finalists for the award were Ethiopian independent journalism collective Zone 9 Bloggers, and Syrian human rights lawyer, activist and journalist Razan Zaitouneh.
Tohti is also one of four candidates for the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights awarded later this month.