Beijing: A group of leading rights organisations has awarded its annual prize for human rights defenders to imprisoned Chinese Muslim minority economics professor Ilham Tohti, shining new attention on a case that has brought strong international condemnation.
The Martin Ennals Award is bestowed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and eight other human rights groups. The award ceremony takes place in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening.
Tohti, 46, was given a life sentence on charges of separatism in September 2014 after a two-day trial. A member of the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group, he taught at Beijing's Minzu University and was an outspoken critic of Beijing's ethnic policies in the far western region of Xinjiang.
Tohti denied Beijing's relentless accusations of advocating separatism and violence. Tohti has "sought reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese policies and Uyghur grievances.
This is information the Chinese government has sought to keep behind a veil of silence," the group said in a statement, using an alternative spelling for Uighur.
"He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated," it said. Prevented from publishing, Tohti turned to the internet, running the site Uyghurbiz.net to foster discussion about the economic, social and developmental issues Uighurs face.
Seven of Tohti's students were also sentenced in what was seen as a move to strengthen the government's case against him.
Authorities accused Tohti and his students of forming a criminal gang that sought to split Xinjiang from China. Tohti's sentence was one of the harshest handed down to a government critic in recent years and came amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping. He was tried and imprisoned in Xinjiang, more than 2,000 kilometers from Beijing, making it difficult and expensive for his family to see him in brief bi-monthly visits.
Tohti's trial and sentencing brought statements of condemnation from numerous Western governments and the European Union, and in January this year several hundred academics petitioned China's authoritarian Communist government to release him.
Many pointed out that Tohti was a voice for moderation and understanding at a time of intense friction between Islam, the West and China.