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Jailed Chinese scholar Ilham Tohti receives human rights award

The move was condemned by Beijing, with the foreign ministry's spokesman saying 'there is clear evidence of IIham Tohti's wrongdoings'. Photograph: (AFP)

Geneva, Switzerland Oct 11, 2016, 12.00 PM (IST)

Ilham Tohti, an Uighur scholar who was jailed for life for his criticism of China's official ethnic policies, was awarded the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders on Tuesday.

The scholar from China's mostly-Muslim Uighur minority has spoken publicly against China's policies towards the Uighur minority in their home region Xinjiang in western China. Xinjiang has seen a security crackdown in recent years, prompted by clashes that have killed hundreds.

The 46-year-old was sentenced in 2014 to life in prison for "separatism".

"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 Martin Ennals Foundation chairman Dick Oosting in a statement, AFP reported.

The award named after Amnesty International's first secretary general is judged by the London-based rights group, with Human Rights Watch and other leading organisations. The award is given to "Human Rights Defenders who have shown deep commitment and face great personal risk".

"Ilham Tohti has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. 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," reads the citation for Tohti's award on Martin Ennals Award website.

The move was condemned by Beijing, with the foreign ministry's spokesman saying "there is clear evidence of IIham Tohti's wrongdoings".

"Ilham Tohti used to be a university professor in China. In his class, he hailed suspects who launched terrorist attacks as 'heroes'," Geng said in a statement. 

Teng Biao, an exiled human rights lawyer and friend of the jailed scholar, welcomed the award.

“It is definitely good news,” The Guardian reported Biao as saying. “It won’t necessarily lead to an early release or have direct consequences but at least this kind of prize will make the international community more aware of Ilham Tohti. Every award is helpful to Chinese political prisoners and human rights defenders.” 

The other two finalists included Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh and a collective of Ethiopian bloggers called Zone 9.

(WION with inputs from AFP)

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