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Ilham Tohti – pictured in 2010 – has been nominated for the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Photo: Ricky Wong

Jailed dissident economist Ilham Tohti nominated for top European human rights prize

  • Prize co-sponsor says Tohti is an example of courage and determination in standing up for basic principles of justice and fairness
  • China says giving him the award would be a show of support for terrorism

Jailed dissident Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti has been shortlisted for one of Europe’s top human rights prizes, focusing attention again on China’s treatment of ethnic Uygurs in its far western region of Xinjiang.

Tohti, who has been serving a life sentence in China since 2014 on separatism-related charges, was nominated for the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize, alongside Buzurgmehr Yorov, a human rights lawyer in Tajikistan, and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, a group promoting reconciliation in the Balkans.

China claims ‘success at this stage’ of Xinjiang internment camps amid global outcry

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the nomination should be withdrawn.

Geng said Tohti was convicted of subversion charges and supporting terrorism, and giving him the award would be showing support for terrorism.

Before his arrest, Tohti, an ethnic Uygur economist, writer, and professor at Minzu University in Beijing, called on Beijing to ease tensions in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, urging the authorities to abide by the region’s existing laws, reduce economic discrimination and establish a legal system.

Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which co-sponsors the prize, said the nominees had showed “courage and determination in standing up for basic principles of justice and fairness – often at great personal cost, risking their liberty and sometimes even their lives”.

If chosen, Tohti would become the first Chinese dissident awarded the prize, named after the Czech playwright and politician who opposed Soviet communism.

Tohti’s nomination comes amid reports that more than a million ethnic Uygurs and members of other largely Muslim ethnic groups have been detained in extrajudicial internment camps in Xinjiang in a crackdown that began in early 2017. The government says the camps are vocational training centres and part of an effort to combat terrorism.

China claims most Muslim detainees have been released from Xinjiang camps

There have been reports of torture and forced labour at the camps, and some members of the Uygur diaspora in Turkey have also complained of forced family separation in Xinjiang, with children ordered to go to boarding schools.

Apart from the European prize, Tohti was nominated in January by a bipartisan group of 13 US lawmakers for the Nobel Peace Prize.

US Republican Congressman Marco Rubio, a long-time critic of China’s human rights record, said at the time that the nomination “could not be more timely” as the Chinese government and Communist Party continued to “perpetrate gross human rights violations”.

The US government has stepped up pressure on China to change its Uygur policies, including hiring an ethnic Uygur as President Donald Trump’s top China policy adviser.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Uygur may receive one of Europe’s top honours