BEIJING (AFP) – China hit out at the European Parliament on Friday (Oct 25) for awarding a key human rights prize to jailed Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, saying that he is a “terrorist”.
Tohti – a former economics professor sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 by Beijing – was announced as the winner of the Sakharov Prize on Thursday.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing on Friday that giving the award to Tohti was “problematic”.
“I hope that Europe can respect China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty, and avoid celebrating a terrorist,” she said.
The outspoken Tohti was convicted for “separatism” in a trial that provoked outcry from foreign governments and human rights organisations.
European Parliament head David Sassoli urged Beijing to immediately release Tohti as he announced the award, calling him a “voice of moderation and reconciliation”.
“I don’t know what exactly this prize is, what its importance, value or impact are,” said Hua. “But what I know is Ilham Tohti is a criminal convicted by Chinese courts.”
Tohti, who turned 50 on Friday, was also awarded the top Vaclav Havel award in September for “giving the entire Uighur people a voice”.
He has also been nominated by US lawmakers for the Nobel Peace Prize, amid growing scrutiny of China’s treatment of the Uighurs.
Rights groups and experts say more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up in internment camps in the north-west region of Xinjiang.
China initially denied the existence of the camps, but now says they are “vocational training schools” necessary to combat terrorism.
Before his arrest in January 2014, Tohti founded and ran the UighurOnline website, which wrote in Uighur and Chinese about social issues.
He gained prominence as a moderate voice drawing attention to ethnic tensions in the region.
The website was shut down when he was arrested, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog.
Washington this month announced the blacklisting of 28 Chinese entities it says are involved in rights violations in Xinjiang, which China rejected as “groundless”.
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