Journalists in Turkey have awarded a freedom prize to jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, rejecting demands by the Chinese authorities not to confer the award on the outspoken professor.
The Bartın Province Journalists Association and International Journalism Association For Turkic-Speaking Countries gave Tohti the “Ismail Gaspirali Turkic World Freedom Award” at a ceremony at the small province in northern Turkey on the Black Sea Saturday.
The award was in remembrance of respected Crimean Tatari educator Ismail Gaspirali, one of the first Muslim intellectuals in the Russian Empire who pushed for the modernization of the Turkic and Islamic communities.
Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment for "separatism" by a court in northwestern China's troubled Xinjiang region in September. He has rejected the charge as baseless.
Human rights activists say he never received the benefit of a fair trial, and that he should never have been tried in the first place for exercising his constitutional right to free expression.
The Xinjiang region, home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
The Chinese embassy in Turkey's capital Ankara directly called Yawuz Arslan, the president of the Ismail Gaspirali Turkic World Journalists and Human Rights Award Committee, asking him to withdraw the award to Tohti, according to sources.
Arslan refused, saying he respected the committee’s decision to honor Tohti, a former Beijing-based Central University for Nationalities economics professor and a long-time advocate of Uyghur rights and outspoken critic of Chinese policies in the Xinjiang region.
"If you have anything to say on Turkish foreign policy, please contact the Turkish foreign ministry, not our committee," he was quoted saying to the Chinese authorities by sources.
Tohti's U.S.-based daughter Jewher thanked the media groups for presenting the award to her father, saying it would help highlight his plight.
"I cannot tell you how much this means to me that people all over the world recognize his bravery and his principles," she said. "Thank you for helping to bring ever closer the day when human rights is recognized in China in fact as well as in name."
"Ismail Gaspirali was a great reformist and liberal thinker in the modern Turkic world. I think this honor fully certified that my father’s peaceful struggle for Uyghur fundamental political rights and democracy is already recognized by the international society."
Tohti's Beijing-based wife Guzelnur said her husband should be freed because "he did no wrong but just spoke up for Uyghur rights."
"He loved his people, loved his students, and loved his family so much. He is a good father, good husband, and good teacher too."
A poem was recited at the award ceremony entitled “The Beautiful Motherland—East Turkestan."
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, as the region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
Reported by Arslan Tash and Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Eset Sulaiman. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.