Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti was nominated as a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award 2016 on Wednesday. The award is given to those who have defended human rights with courage in the face of personal risk.

Tohti is a public intellectual who is also an economist and writer. He has been outspoken against China’s policies towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang and began writing about problems and abuses that the ethnic minority group face in 1994.

Tohti is seen as a moderate voice who says he does not approve of independence for Xinjiang, however his writing has led to official surveillance. He was also banned from teaching for four years, between 1999 to 2003, after “posting information on Uyghurs who were killed, arrested, or ‘disappeared’ during or after protests,” according to the award organisers.

Ilham Tohti
Ilham Tohti. Photo: Martin Ennals Award

Tohti was jailed for life for advocating separatism after a two day trial in September, 2014. His students were also jailed in December, 2014 for contributing to a website that was run by Tohti.

“He has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understand between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. He has rejected separatism and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture,” added the organisers.

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His daughter, Jewher Ilham, told the organisers of the Martin Ennals Award: “My father Ilham Tohti has 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.”

Other finalists for the award include the Zone 9 Bloggers, who “document human rights abuses and violations of law by both state and non-state actors” as well as Razan Zaitouneh, who is a human rights lawyer, activist and journalist.

The jury of the Martin Ennals Award is composed of ten NGOs, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, as well as the World Organisation Against Torture. The awards ceremony will be held on October 11, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.