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Jailed Uighur Tohti Wins European Parliament Sakharov Rights Award

FILE - Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, China, Feb. 4, 2013.
Jailed Uighur Tohti Wins European Parliament Sakharov Rights Award
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The European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize for human rights to Uighur activist, economist and writer Ilham Tohti. He is serving a lifetime prison sentence in China for “separatism.”

Tohti turns 50 years old on Friday. His 2014 trial brought strong criticism from foreign governments and human rights organizations.

The head of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, announced the award Thursday. He also asked China to immediately release Tohti from jail.

"Despite being a voice of moderation and reconciliation, he was sentenced to life in prison following a show trial in 2014," Sassoli told an open session of parliament.

"By awarding this prize, we strongly urge the Chinese government to release Tohti and we call for the respect of minority rights in China", Sassoli added.

In September, Tohti won another of Europe's top human rights awards, the Vaclav Havel prize. The Council of Europe presented him the award for “giving the…Uighur people a voice.”

Tohti became famous for being a moderate voice, and as someone who called attention to ethnic tensions in the far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Before his arrest in January 2014, Tohti ran the website UighurOnline, which he also founded. The site included reports about social issues in both the Uighur and Mandarin Chinese languages. Tohti's website was shut down when he was arrested, the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

Tohti was also detained back in 2009, following ethnic violence in Xinjiang. At the time, he wrote about Uighurs who had been detained and killed in the violence, Amnesty International said.

Rights groups and experts say more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been taken to internment camps in Xinjiang. The area also has seen an intense surveillance and security crackdown.

At first, China denied the existence of the camps. Now, it says they are “training schools." It claims Uighurs are being trained for new jobs in an effort to fight terrorism.

An Agence France Presse investigation of over 1,500 government documents last year found that the camps were run more like jails than schools. The documents showed that weapons were supplied to officials at the camps.

China's foreign ministry has called Tohti a "separatist who supports extreme terrorism."

The U.S. government announced this month that it was blacklisting 28 Chinese businesses and organizations connected to the oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang. It also will refuse visas for Chinese officials involved in the "detention or abuse" of Uighurs, Kazakhs or members of other minorities in Xinjiang.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Agence France Presse reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

reconciliation – n. the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement

journalist – n. one who reports the news for TV, radio, newspapers or a website

internment – n. arrested and held without trial

surveillance – n. the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime

blacklist – n. a list of people, organizations, etc., that are disapproved of or that are to be punished or avoided