Rights activists on Wednesday welcomed the nomination of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti as a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award 2016, for those who "defend human rights with courage in the face of personal risk."
Tohti, a former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was sentenced to life in prison following his conviction on a charge of “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang on Sept. 23, 2014.
He was named Wednesday as a finalist nominee on the website of the Martin Ennals Award, which is named for the founder of London-based rights group Amnesty International.
"Ilham Tohti’s case is particularly important given the crucial international issues and human rights concerns on which it touches," the statement said.
It said Tohti was involved in "the fostering of moderate Islamic values in the face of state-directed religious repression [and] efforts to open lines of dialogue between a Muslim minority and a non-Muslim majority population."
His case also exemplifies the suppression of non-violent dissent by an authoritarian state, it said.
China has been keen to portray its Uyghur population as potential terrorists after a wave of violent incidents hit the region following a crackdown on deadly ethnic riots in Urumqi in July 2009.
Many Uyghurs try to leave China illegally, saying they are fleeing systematic persecution by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which then puts strong diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries to return them to China rather than treating them as refugees.
"We believe that [Ilham Tohti's] case is very representative of of China's treatment of ethnic minorities, as well as its suppression of freedom of speech," Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon told RFA following the nomination.
Beijing-based veteran rights activist Hu Jia meanwhile warned that Ilham Tohti's family is currently facing great economic hardship, and his wife Guzelnur remains under close surveillance by China's state security police.
Calls to Guzelnur's phone rang unanswered on Wednesday. However, she had told RFA in an interview on Tuesday that she is relying on handouts from friends to raise the couple's two young sons.
Ilham Tohti, who was jailed over politically moderate content posted on his UighurOnline website, is currently serving the longest sentence handed down to a political prisoner in China, Hu said.
According to the Martin Ennals Award website, which described him as a "renowned Uyghur public intellectual," Ilham Tohti has worked tirelessly to foster dialogue and understanding between the mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking Uyghur group and the majority Han Chinese.
Surveillance and harassment
In the face of religious, cultural, and political repression suffered by Uyghurs, he had also become a recognized expert on economic and social issues pertaining to Xinjiang and Central Asia, it said.
"As a scholar, he has been forthright about problems and abuses in Xinjiang," the website said. "This led to official surveillance and harassment that began in 1994."
According to an autobiographical essay written by Ilham Tohti himself, the scholar was barred from teaching between 1999 and 2003, and had found it nearly impossible to publish in academic journals before his arrest.
Meanwhile, his UighurOnline website at uighurbiz.net was targeted by Internet censors, who shut it down repeatedly, while many of those who worked on it were detained and harassed.
Amid a growing climate of repression in the wake of his publication of arrests, deaths and 'disappearances' in the wake of the 2009 Urumqi riots, Ilham Tohti had planned to spend time as a visiting scholar in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University.
But he was detained as he tried to leave China to take up the post in early 2013.
He was later formally arrested on Jan. 15, 2014 and charged with separatism. His subsequent trial and sentence prompted a wave of international protests and petitions for his release.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.