China: Uyghur scholar jailed for life wins top human rights award

China jails prominent scholar for life
China jails prominent scholar for life

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Story highlights

  • Tohti was jailed for life in 2014, accused of separatism and promoting terrorism
  • Beijing says Tohti "has nothing to do with human rights"

Hong Kong (CNN)Chinese officials have denounced the award of a prestigious human rights prize to jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti.

Tohti was found guilty of "separatism" in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison.
    On Tuesday, he received the Martin Ennals Award, the winner of which is selected by a jury of 10 activist groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
    Speaking at a regular media briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused Tohti of openly making "heroes of terrorist extremists that conducted violent terror attacks."
    "Ilham Tohti has nothing to do with human rights," he said.

    'Rejected separatism'

    Before he was jailed, Tohti was known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations and has been a vocal critic of the government's ethnic policies in Xinjiang, a resource-rich region long inhabited by the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs.
    The arrival of waves of Han, China's predominant ethnic group, over the past decades has fueled ethnic tensions, as have harsh treatment of Uyghurs by Chinese security forces and restrictions on traditional Islamic practices such as fasting for Ramadan.
    "Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese," the jury said.
    "He has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region."
    Residents of Xinjiang, in western China, have complained of harsh treatment by security forces.

    Moderate voice

    Harsh treatment of scholars like Tohti could backfire on Beijing, Martin Ennals Foundation chair Dick Oosting warned.
    "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," he said in a statement.
    After he was nominated for the award, Tohti's daughter Jewher Ilham, who is a student in the United States, said her father "had 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."
    This month, Tohti was also nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by 43 members of the European Parliament.
    Bulgarian MEP Ilhan Kyuchyuk called Tohti a "free thinker who believes in human rights, the rule of law, peaceful coexistence among ethnic groups and a democratic future for China."