Imprisoned Uyghur scholar wins rights award

The Martin Ennals Award has been given to Ilham Tohti for decades of fostering dialogue between the mostly Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese. The honour comes two years after he was jailed by China for promoting "separatism".

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Imprisoned professor Ilham Tohti “sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression” in Xinjiang, China, the Martin Ennals foundation said.

An imprisoned Uyghur professor has won a rights award, organisers said on Tuesday. 

Ilham Tohti won the annual Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders while serving a life sentence handed down by China. Tohti was convicted of "separatism" after Chinese government accused him of inciting Uyghurs to use violence and preaching "hatred and killing”. Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group, mostly Muslim, who live in the restive region of Xinjiang in China near its borders with Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

"A renowned Uighur intellectual in China, Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese," the Martin Ennals foundation 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."

The formal ceremony was scheduled to take place in Geneva on Tuesday evening. The honour is collectively conferred by 10 leading human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Who is Ilham Tohti?

Tohti was born in Xinjiang in 1969. He went on to become an economics professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing before he was imprisoned.

Tohti slowly gained recognition as an expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia. In 2006, he launched, a bilingual website which opened debate on the problems surrounding Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Ilham Tohti was convicted of separatism and sentenced to life in prison by a court in Xinjiang.

His work attracted attention after the deadly ethnic riots of 2009 in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

The clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese resulted in many deaths. Tohti would post information about the Uyghurs who were killed and those who went missing in protests. 

In 2013, he was detained at an airport in China as he was travelling to the US. In 2014, he was charged and sentenced to life in prison. 

Amnesty International reported in 2014 that Chinese authorities clamped down on "peaceful expressions of cultural identity” and labelled people as “separatist” or “illegal religious.” 

Also in 2014, government departments in Xinjiang came under criticism after they banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

TRTWorld and agencies