The city of Weimar, Germany has announced that it will award its 2017 Human Rights Award to Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life prison sentence in China for separatism.

The city government announced its decision on Friday in a statement.

“[Ilham Tohti] has always advocated a peaceful coexistence between the ethnic groups of the Uyghurs and Han Chinese, as well as other minorities, and has only observed compliance with the existing autonomy law by the Chinese government,” the city council said.

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Photos: Wikicommons, Ai Weiwei/Lego portrait of Ilham Tohti.

An economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing, Tohti worked to foster understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Ethnically Uyghur himself, he highlighted government policies that limited the use of the Uyghur language, restricted Uyghurs’ ability to practice their religion, and encouraged Han migration into the region, according to Amnesty International. He also ran a website which reported on human rights violations.

In 2014, he was taken from his home in Beijing to Xinjiang, a western region where there has been repeated ethnic unrest and violence. There, he was tried during a closed two-day trial and sentenced. His sentence was condemned by the United States, other foreign governments, and rights groups.

He was nominated for the 2017 prize by the NGO the Society of Threatened Peoples (GfbV), which is based in Germany.

“The City Council hopes that the award will spread Tohti’s message of peace and dialogue and the efforts for his release,” Weimar’s government said.

Chinese authorities see Tohti as a dangerous separatist. After he was arrested, police authorities in Xinjiang said he used his website to “misrepresent events to instigate ethnic hatred and calls for ‘Xinjiang independence’,” and instigated students to hate and overthrow the government.

At a protest in Hong Kong prior to the 20th anniversary of the city’s transfer of sovereignty, demonstrators carried photos of Tohti along with detained dissidents and activists including Liu Xiaobo, Su Changlan, and Wang Quanzhang.

See also: China’s imprisonment of Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti has dire consequences

The Weimar Human Rights Award is given to individuals or organisations fighting for freedom and equality, the prevention of genocide, the right to free speech, and the respect and preservation of minority rights, among others.

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Former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan at a protest in Hong Kong last Friday. Behind him, a protester holds up a photo of Ilham Tohti. Photo: Dan Garrett.

The annual award is given out by the town – the namesake of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), which gave way to the Nazi regime – in “remembrance of its special historical responsibility and as a symbol of all the anonymous victims of dictatorships and tyrannies throughout the world.”

Tohti was also nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and awarded the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders in 2016.

The award ceremony will take place on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.