A group of human rights organisations has awarded its annual prize for human rights defenders to Chinese Muslim minority economics professor Ilham Tohti.
The professor is currently imprisoned in mainland China, and the award shines new attention on a case that has brought strong international condemnation.
The winner of the Martin Ennals Award is decided by 10 rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. A ceremony honouring the award, which was founded in 1994, took place in Geneva on yesterday with his daughter in attendance.
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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 that he was calling for separation and violence.
His daughter Jewher Ilham said she hadn’t seen her father since they parted at the Beijing airport in February 2013, but her relatives had visited him in prison over the summer.
While he and the visiting relatives were barred by Chinese officials from discussing his treatment behind bars, Tohti had clearly lost weight, she said.
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"My family visited on July 7: They told me that he's gotten skinnier — he lost 40 pounds — and all his hair turned grey," she told reporters before of the awards ceremony.
"He wasn't allowed to say anything," other than to discuss general topics like “children, studies, and life,” she said.
She said she didn't expect the award would worsen an already bad situation because of the life sentence, and she didn't think the government would get back at her family.
But she said she hoped the award would increase awareness about her father.
Chinese authorities could realise the international attention on Tohti’s situation, and "they are scared that their reputation will get ruined," said Ilham, who is a student at Indiana University in the United States.
"Either it will have better effects or maybe no change - they just ignore it - but I don’t think things can get worse."
It could "make people believe that what the Chinese government has been telling people is a lie," she said.
She worried that people would lose interest in her father's case.
In a statement announcing the award, the rights groups said Tohti has "sought reconciliation by bringing to light repressive Chinese policies and Uygur grievances. This is information the Chinese government has sought to keep behind a veil of silence.
"He remains a voice of moderation and reconciliation in spite of how he has been treated," it said.
Not allowed to publish his ideas, Tohti turned to the internet, running the site Uyghurbiz.net to get people talking 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.
The government says Tohti and his students were forming a criminal gang that wanted to split Xinjiang from China.
Tohti’s sentence was one of the harshest handed down to a government critic in recent years.
Tohti’s trial and sentencing brought statements of condemnation from Western governments and the European Union, and in January several hundred academics petitioned the 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.
“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,” said Dick Oosting, chairman of the foundation that presents the award, named after a former secretary general of Amnesty International.
At a regular briefing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated the authorities' allegation that Tohti was inciting others to participate in terrorist activities. Geng Shuang said Tohti’s case was backed by evidence and "has nothing to do with human rights."