by Béatrice ROMAN-AMAT with Jing Xuan TENG in Beijing
The European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for human rights on Thursday to Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, sentenced to life imprisonment in China for “separatism”, parliamentary sources told AFP.
The outspoken former professor of economics at a Beijing university was sentenced in 2014 by Chinese courts to life imprisonment for “separatism” in a trial that provoked an outcry from foreign governments and human rights organisations.
He “has worked for over 20 years on the situation of the Uighur minority and on fostering inter-ethnic dialogue and understanding in China,” the Council of Europe, Europe’s top rights body, said after nominating Tohti for the Vaclav Havel prize.
Before his arrest in January 2014, Tohti founded and ran the UighurOnline website, which wrote in Uighur and Chinese about social issues.
He gained prominence as a moderate voice drawing attention to ethnic tensions in the region and taught at a Beijing university.
Rights groups and experts say more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up in internment camps in Xinjiang.
Authorities in the northwestern region have also rolled out an extensive surveillance system combining methods including high-tech facial recognition cameras, wifi sniffers and home visits, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tohti’s website was shut down when he was arrested, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog.
Tohti had previously been detained in 2009 amid ethnic violence in Xinjiang, after he wrote about Uighurs detained and killed during the unrest, according to Amnesty International.
China initially denied the existence of the camps, but now says they are “vocational training schools” necessary to combat terrorism.
An AFP investigation of over 1,500 government documents last year found that the camps were run more like jails than schools, with tasers and tear gas among the equipment supplied to the camps.
China had slammed the Council of Europe after it nominated Tohti in August for the Vaclav Havel prize, which was also awarded to a rights group from the Balkans.
China’s foreign ministry called Tohti a “separatist who supports extreme terrorism”.
He has also been nominated by US lawmakers for the Nobel Peace Prize, amid growing scrutiny of China’s treatment of the Uighurs.
The United States announced this month that it was blacklisting 28 Chinese entities connected to repressive policies in Xinjiang, and that it would curb visas for Chinese officials involved in the “detention or abuse” of Uighurs, Kazakhs or members of other minorities in the region.
© Agence France-Presse