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article imageJailed Chinese activist wins top rights prize for Uighur work

By Ben Simon (AFP)     Oct 11, 2016 in World

A jailed Chinese scholar defending the country's mostly-Muslim Uighur minority won a leading human rights honour on Tuesday, a move swiftly condemned by Beijing.

Ilham Tohti, serving a life sentence for "separatism", was awarded the Martin Ennals prize for his criticism of Beijing's policies towards Uighurs in western China's Xinjiang region.

The award foundation lauded his decades-long effort "to foster dialogue and understanding between Uighurs and Han Chinese" and his rejection of extremist rhetoric.

Xinjiang has seen a security crackdown in recent years, prompted by clashes that left hundreds dead.

The 47-year-old university professor began writing about abuses in Xinjiang in 1994, leading Beijing to target him with official surveillance.

Chinese authorities later prohibited him from teaching or publishing.

He launched a blog -- -- in 2006, which ultimately triggered a tough government reaction.

After Ilham Tohti posted details of Uighurs who had been arrested and killed he was confined to house arrest and hit with a travel ban.

In 2014, he was sentenced to life in prison by a court in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang.

- 'The worst situation' -

Uighur men make their way to afternoon prayers in Kashgar  in China's western Xinjiang region
Uighur men make their way to afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region
Greg Baker, AFP/File

During his trial, Ilham Tohti rejected claims he was advocating an independent Uighur state, insisting that his only goal was to safeguard his people's basic rights.

"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.

Ilham Tohti's daughter, Jewher Ilham, told journalists at the United Nations in Geneva that her family had visited her father in prison earlier this year and reported that he had lost a significant amount of weight and his hair had turned grey.

Supervision by prison authorities constrained what relatives could tell the detained activist, said Jewhar Ilhan, who is studying in the US state of Indiana.

It is unlikely her father even knows he was nominated for the Ennals prize, the 22-year-old added.

Asked about whether the award might worsen her father's treatment by attracting attention to his case, Jewher Ilham said: "my father has already been given a life sentence."

"This is already the worst situation we can have," she added.

- 'Root cause of hatred' -

The Martin Ennals foundation is named after the first secretary general of Amnesty International and the 30,000 Swiss franc ($30,000, 27,000 euros) 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 their decision, saying "there is clear evidence of Ilham Tohti's wrongdoings."

"In his class, he hailed suspects who launched terrorist attacks as 'heroes'," Geng said in a statement. "His case has nothing to do with human rights."

The World Uyghur Congress, an exile group, said the prize should serve as "a reminder to the Chinese government."

"Suppressing those who uphold universal values is absolutely wrong and is the root cause of hatred and conflict," the group's spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in an email to AFP.

The other finalists -- awarded 10,000 Swiss francs each -- included Syrian Razan Zaitouneh, who documented violations in the country's civil war before she was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in 2013.

She was taken from an area near Damascus that was controlled by the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and some blame the group for her abduction.

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.

Last year's Martin Ennals laureate was Ahmed Mansoor, who has campaigned for human rights in the United Arab Emirates.

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