Jailed Uighur scholar awarded Martin Ennals Award for human rights, Beijing slams decision

University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti, on June 12, 2010.
University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti, on June 12, 2010. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - A jailed scholar from China's mostly-Muslim Uighur minority was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders on Tuesday (Oct 11), a move swiftly condemned by Beijing.

Ilham Tohti has been an outspoken critic of Beijing's policies towards the Uighur minority in their home region of Xinjiang in western China, which has seen a security crackdown in recent years, prompted by clashes that have killed hundreds.

In 2014, he was sentenced to life in prison for "separatism" over a website he ran that was often critical of China's official ethnic policies.

"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," Martin Ennals Foundation chairman Dick Oosting said in a statement.

The foundation is named after the first secretary general of Amnesty International and the prize is judged by the London-based rights group, along with Human Rights Watch and other leading organisations.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang slammed the decision, saying, "There is clear evidence of IIham Tohti's wrongdoings".

"Ilham Tohti used to be a university professor in China. In his class, he hailed suspects who launched terrorist attacks as 'heroes,'" Mr Geng said in a statement.

"He has been convicted by Chinese justice for separatism. His case has nothing to do with human rights."

The other finalists included Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh, who began advocating on behalf of political prisoners in her country in 2002, work that led to President Bashar al-Assad's government banning her from travel.

Also nominated was a collective of Ethiopian bloggers called Zone 9, a name inspired by the country's notorious Kality prison, which has eight zones and where political prisoners and journalists are often held.

Zone 9 was founded by nine writers in 2012, with a mandate to address rights violations and unlawful detentions in Ethiopia.

The blog faced a crackdown almost immediately, with the authorities taking measures to block anyone inside the country from reading it.