Ilham Tohti was convicted of separatism and condemned to a life behind bars by a court in Xinjiang in 2014.
Photograph: Andy Wong/AP
Tom Phillips in Beijing
A moderate Uighur intellectual, who was jailed for life after opposing China’s draconian policies in its violence-stricken west, has been named the winner of a prestigious award known as the “human rights Nobel” in a move likely to infuriate Beijing.
Ilham Tohti, who has been called China’s Mandela, was announced as the winner of the annual Martin Ennals award for human rights defenders on Tuesday.
The honour comes two years after the 46-year-old scholar was convicted of separatism and condemned to a life behind bars by a court in Xinjiang, a vast region of western China where there have been repeated outbreaks of ethnic unrest and violence.
In a statement, the Martin Ennals foundation said Ilham Tohti had spent two decades trying “to foster dialogue and understanding” between China’s Han majority and members of Xinjiang’s largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority, of which he is a member.
“He has rejected separatism and violence, and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uighur culture, which has been subject to religious, cultural and political repression,” it added.
Beijing has painted Ilham Tohti – whom western governments and rights groups universally view as a voice of moderation – as a dangerous separatist and “scholar-turned-criminal” who preached “hatred and killing”.
“His case has nothing to do with human rights,” Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, told reporters on Tuesday, accusing the scholar of promoting and taking part in separatist activities.
But Dick Oosting, the chair of the Martin Ennals foundation, rejected that depiction and accused Beijing of silencing a peaceful advocate of Uighur rights.
“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.”
Teng Biao, an exiled human rights lawyer and friend of the jailed scholar, welcomed the award.
“It is definitely good news,” he said. “It won’t necessarily lead to an early release or have direct consequences but at least this kind of prize will make the international community more aware of Ilham Tohti. Every award is helpful to Chinese political prisoners and human rights defenders.”
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s east Asia director, said: “The prize is a much needed recognition of the admirable work that Ilham Tohti has made to the cause of addressing ethnic tensions in Xinjiang, a topic that he knew well would one day lead the government to jail him.”
Also shortlisted for the high-profile award – which is named after the British activist who was one of Amnesty International’s first secretary generals – were Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian campaigner who went missing in Damascus in 2013, and a group of Ethiopian activists known as the Zone 9 bloggers.
Ilham Tohti was born in Artush, a city in Xinjiang near China’s borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, in October 1969.
Aged 16 he made the 2,700-mile journey to Beijing to continue his studies, eventually becoming an economics professor at the Minzu University of China, a institution geared towards the country’s ethnic minorities.
As an academic he began writing about the political and ethnic tensions that continued to blight Xinjiang in the mid-1990s and in 2006 launched a bilingual website called uyghurbiz.net to debate such issues.
Scrutiny of his work intensified following deadly 2009 ethnic riots in Xinjiang’s capital and again after Beijing declared a “people’s war on terror” in 2014 after a spate of attacks linked to the region.
Teng said his friend had attempted to address the causes of the bloodshed by serving as a “bridge to connect Uighurs and Han Chinese”.
“He was never a radical. He never resorted to violence or extreme ideas.”
Even so, the lawyer said his friend’s criticisms of Beijing’s ethnic policies saw him “severely monitored by the secret police”. In early 2014 the scholar was detained at his home in Beijing and taken to Xinjiang, where western diplomats were barred from attending his two-day trial, in September that year.
Teng said Ilham Tohti’s “very inhumane” life sentence – harsh, even by Chinese standards – showed how fearful the Communist party had become of his influence. “That’s the reason the Chinese government … hated him so much.”
Teng said the wife and children of the academic – whose financial assets were also confiscated following his trial – were now “facing difficult times”. Relatives were only permitted to see the jailed scholar for 20 minutes every three months, with discussion of political issues and prison conditions forbidden.
Bequelin said: “By sentencing to life-imprisonment such a moderate and constructive critic who had never advocated either violence or separatism, Beijing betrayed its fear that discussions of any kind about the situation of Uighurs in China would inevitably bring attention to the extraordinarily repressive policies under which Uighurs live.
“These policies have produced disastrous results including increasing ethnic polarisation and a spike in violence in recent years – the very peril that Ilham Tohti was trying to address. It is time for Beijing to recognise that Ilham Tohti should never have been jailed in the first place and release him immediately.”
The decision to honour Ilham Tohti is likely to spark an angry response from Beijing. The Swiss government and donors of the Martin Ennals foundation reportedly faced pressure from Chinese officials after the activist Cao Shunli was shortlisted for the same award just days before she died in custody in 2014.
Teng, who fled China two years ago fearing he too would be imprisoned, said he hoped such awards meant the international community would not “gradually forget” human rights defenders such as Ilham Tohti.
But the severity of the crackdown that has rolled out under President Xi Jinping meant keeping track of all its victims was increasingly difficult.
“The Chinese government has arrested a lot of human rights activists and scholars and lawyers,” Teng said. “It is very hard to remember all these people.”