Wong Lok-to | Radio Free Asia
Jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti has won the Martin Ennals Award 2016, for those who “defend human rights with courage in the face of personal risk,” in a move welcomed by rights activists but not by China.
Tohti, a former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing who has been dubbed “China’s Nelson Mandela,” 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.
The award, which is named for the founder of London-based rights group Amnesty International, is intended to “provide protection through international recognition,” and will be presented in his absence at a ceremony in Geneva on Tuesday, the awarding body said in statement on its website.
Ilham Tohti had worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and the majority Han Chinese, the group said.
“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,” it said.
However, the award drew an immediate rebuke from Beijing, who said Ilham Tohti was jailed amid “clear evidence of wrongdoing.”
“In his class, he hailed suspects who launched terrorist attacks as ‘heroes’,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“He has been convicted by Chinese justice for separatism. His case has nothing to do with human rights.”
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.
Award could spark more repression
But exile Uyghur groups say Beijing’s long-running program of repression in Xinjiang targets Uyghurs, placing restrictions on their religious practices, their clothing, and their ability to travel freely, whether within China or overseas.
World Uyghur Congress (WUC) spokesman Dilxat Raxit welcomed the award.
“We were very pleased as soon as we heard about [this],” he said. “I think it will raise international awareness of Ilham Tohti’s plight as someone who was imprisoned for using his freedom of expression.”
“This award is in itself a recognition of his work in promoting international values and freedom of expression,” he told RFA.
However, Raxit warned that the award could also spark a further round of persecution within China, which is keen to avoid any news of rights abuses from reaching the outside world.
“They will step up the oppression, and after that, they will take further steps to suppress any news of it, to stop there from ever being a second Ilham Tohti,” Raxit said. “It will get to the point where we have no way of knowing what has happened to some dissidents.”
But Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said Tohti’s award is unlikely to have much impact on China’s overall human rights record.
“The Chinese Communist Party isn’t going to stop arresting [dissidents] just because this award was given to someone from China,” Hu said. “But they are capable of thinking about their own interests, and perhaps this award might make them modify their methods.”
“They might not arrest quite so many, or they might give them lighter sentences.”
Hu said he doesn’t expect Ilham Tohti to be released any time soon, however, because the authorities are likely to fear his raised profile.
“But at the very least it might have a protective effect, guaranteeing him the basic minimum standards in terms of his physical and mental health so that … he doesn’t die in prison of some illness or come out a totally broken man,” he said.
Moderate voice eliminated
Martin Ennals Foundation Chair Dick Oosting said the persecution of Ilham Tohti could spark further extremism among Uyghurs, laying the blame at Beijing’s door.
“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,” Oosting said in a statement.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said the choice of Tohti over vocal Chinese protests that he is a separatist represented the international community saying “we don’t believe China’s version of events.”
“The selection of Professor Tohti as this year’s recipient recognizes the kind of threat the Chinese government presents to human rights defense inside and outside China,” she told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
And Mary Lawlor, executive director of the rights group Front Line Defenders, one of the award’s backers, said Ilham Tohti’s work highlighted “feelings of alienation” among Uyghurs in a bid to broker ethnic harmony.
“Ilham Tohti has always used his position as an academic and a well-networked Uighur to try to foster better relations between Uyghurs and Han Chinese,” Lawlor said. “He has sought to address the root causes of dissatisfaction and feelings of alienation amongst some Uyghurs in an effort to guide better Chinese government policy.”
“That he was sentenced to life imprisonment for this is an absolute travesty,” she added.
The news of the award comes after Ilham Tohti was dropped from a final shortlist for the European Parliament’s annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, in spite of a vocal campaign by rights activists and supporters of his work. He had been one of four finalists but didn’t make the cut for the final three.
The Martin Ennals prize is named after the first secretary general of Amnesty International and the prize is judged by the London-based rights group, along with Human Rights Watch and other rights groups.