Uyghur leader Ilham Tohti has been awarded the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders.

Ilham Tohti. Photo: Martin Ennals Award.

Tohti, 46, was a Uyghur economics professor who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University. Although he was an outspoken critic on China’s policies towards ethnic minorities,  the awarding body 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.”

The economics professor began writing about human rights issues in Xinjiang in 1994, and was subsequently banned from teaching and publishing in 1999.

In 2006, he founded the website Uyghur Online as an alternative platform to foster dialogue between Han and Uyghur Chinese. The website, however, was shut down repeatedly, and its writers have been harassed by Chinese officials.

Uyghur men preparing food to finish daily Ramadan fasting time. Photo: Evgeni Zotov via Flickr.

Tohti faced multiple arrests and detainment afterwards. In January 2014, he was arrested on charges of separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment, after a two-day trial. Western governments and the EU have condemned the trial, while Amnesty International called the verdict “deplorable.” Tohti has denied being a separatist.

“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,” said Dick Oosting, Chair of the Martin Ennals Foundation.

“My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang: Words,” said Tohti’s daughter.

Ilham Tohti facing trial in 2014. File photo: Martin Ennals Award.

Patrick Poon, researcher for the China region at Amnesty International, called upon the Chinese government to release him immediately: “There’s no way to see how these acts could be considered committing the offence of ‘separatism’ and sentenced to life,” Poon told HKFP.

“He was simply exercising his freedom of expression through his peaceful actions of running a website reporting and commenting on ethnic policies in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and his lectures,” Poon said, “Ilham Tohti deserves this award.”

The Martin Ennals Award is bestowed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and eight other groups advocating human rights. The award ceremony will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening.

Stanley is a Media and Communications graduate from Goldsmiths College in London. He takes particular interest in visual journalism, having produced photographic and video work on a number of social and political issues. He has also interned at the current affairs service of RTHK’s TV division.