China says Uighur award nomination is 'supporting terrorism'

BEIJING (AFP) - Beijing slammed on Thursday (Aug 29) the nomination of a jailed academic from China's Uighur minority for one of Europe's top human rights awards, saying it equated to "supporting terrorism".

Europe's top rights body has shortlisted Ilham Tohti, an economics professor who was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 after being convicted of separatism.

The 49-year-old economics professor "has worked for over 20 years on the situation of the Uighur minority and on fostering inter-ethnic dialogue and understanding in China", the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly said in a statement after meeting on Monday in Prague.

But China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday called Tohti a "separatist who supports extreme terrorism" and urged the Council of Europe to withdraw its nomination.

"This nomination is an attempt to whitewash his criminal activities and fool the human rights community," Mr Geng said at a regular briefing.

"We urge relevant agencies to withdraw their nominations and stop supporting separatist activities and terrorism."

Tohti is one of three nominees for the 2019 Vaclav Havel prize, along with Tajik human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov and a youth group promoting post-war reconciliation in the Balkans.

The winner of the €60,000 prize will be announced on Sept 30 in Strasbourg, home of the 47-country Council of Europe which founded the European Court of Human Rights.

Tohti has also been nominated by US lawmakers for the Nobel Peace Prize.

His nomination for the European prize comes as China's treatment of the Uighurs - a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority concentrated in China's tightly-controlled north-western Xinjiang region - comes under growing scrutiny.

Rights groups and experts say more than one million mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been interned in re-education camps in Xinjiang.

China initially denied the existence of the camps before later admitting to running what it called "vocational education centres", which it presented as necessary to combat religious extremism and boost employment.

Last month, Beijing said "most" of those being held had now returned home, without providing details.

Previous winners of the Vaclav Havel prize - named after the late Czech dissident and former president - include Nobel laureate Nadia Murad, a Yazidi activist who survived torture and rape by the Islamic State, and Oyub Titiyev, a Chechen rights activist who spent 18 months in a Russian jail.

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