GENEVA — A group of advocacy organizations has awarded its annual prize for human rights defenders to imprisoned Chinese Muslim minority economics professor Ilham Tohti, shining new attention on a case that has brought strong international condemnation.
The Martin Ennals Award is bestowed by 10 rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. A ceremony honoring the award, which was founded in 1994, was taking place in Geneva on Tuesday with his daughter in attendance.
Tohti, 46, was given a life sentence on charges of separatism in September 2014 after a two-day trial. A member of the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group, he taught at Beijing’s Minzu University and was an outspoken critic of Beijing’s ethnic policies in the far western region of Xinjiang.
Tohti denied Beijing’s relentless accusations of advocating separatism and violence.
His daughter Jewher Ilham said she hadn’t seen her father since they parted at the Beijing airport in February 2013, but her relatives had visited him in prison over the summer. While he and the visiting relatives were barred by Chinese officials from discussing his treatment behind bars, Tohti had clearly lost weight, she said.
“My family visited on July 7: They told me that he’s gotten skinnier — he lost 40 pounds — and all his hair turned gray,” she told reporters ahead of the awards ceremony. “He wasn’t allowed to say anything,” other than to discuss general topics like “children, studies, and life,” she said.
She said she didn’t expect the award would worsen an already bad situation because of the life sentence, or anticipate that the government would retaliate against the family. But she said she hoped the award would increase awareness about her father.
Chinese authorities could realize the international attention to Tohti’s situation, and “they are scared that their reputation will get ruined,” said Ilham, who is a student at Indiana University in the United States. “Either it will have better effects or maybe no change — they just ignore it — but I don’t think things can get worse.”
It could “make people believe that what the Chinese government has been telling people is a lie,” she said, adding that her broader concern was that outside observers might lose attentiveness to Tohti’s imprisonment long after Tuesday’s prize ceremony.
In a statement announcing the award, the rights groups said Tohti has “sought reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese policies and Uyghur grievances. This is information the Chinese government has sought to keep behind a veil of silence.” The statement used an alternative spelling for Uighur.
“He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated,” it said.
Prevented from publishing, Tohti turned to the internet, running the site Uyghurbiz.net to foster discussion about the economic, social and developmental issues Uighurs face.
Seven of Tohti’s students were also sentenced in what was seen as a move to strengthen the government’s case against him.
Authorities accused Tohti and his students of forming a criminal gang that sought to split Xinjiang from China.
Tohti’s sentence was one of the harshest handed down to a government critic in recent years and came amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping. He was tried and imprisoned in Xinjiang, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) from Beijing, making it difficult and expensive for his family to see him in brief bi-monthly visits.
Tohti’s trial and sentencing brought statements of condemnation from numerous Western governments and the European Union, and in January several hundred academics petitioned China’s government to release him.
Many pointed out that Tohti was a voice for moderation and understanding at a time of intense friction between Islam, the West and China.
“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, chairman of the foundation that presents the award, named after a former secretary general of Amnesty International.
Many Uighurs say Chinese government policies and an influx of migrants belonging to China’s majority Han ethnic group have threatened their culture and left them economically marginalized. Such sentiments are seen as driving occasional outbursts of violence, including deadly riots in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.
At a regular briefing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated the authorities’ allegation that Tohti was inciting others to participate in terrorist activities. Geng Shuang said Tohti’s case was backed by evidence and “has nothing to do with human rights.”
The government was enraged by the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. China accused Norway, which hosts the award ceremony, of a deliberate insult, and relations between the two have yet to recover.
“The award not only duly recognizes Prof. Ilham Tohti’s courageous work promoting minority rights and dialogues between Hans and Uighurs, it also highlights the Chinese government’s increasingly harsh punishment against its critics,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“Instead of reacting angrily to the news, the Chinese government should release Ilham Tohti and reverse its repressive policies in Xinjiang,” Wang said.
The other finalists for the Martin Ennals award were Razan Zaitouneh, a rights advocate and defender of political prisoners in Syria who was kidnapped in December 2013 along with her husband and two colleagues, and the Zone 9 Bloggers of Ethiopia — an independent journalism collective that document cases of rights abuses there.
Tohti was one of five candidates for the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for human rights awarded later this month, though he didn’t make the cut of three finalists announced Tuesday.
Bodeen reported from Beijing.