Outside China, Ilham Tohti is considered a moderate Uighur voice, but he was convicted in 2014 on charges including advocating separatism and inciting ethnic hatred. (Andy Wong/AP)

China dismissed the awarding of a major human rights prize Tuesday to scholar Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur who was jailed for life in 2014 on charges of advocating separatism and supporting terrorism.

Tohti, who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, was an outspoken critic of China’s ethnic policies in the mainly Muslim far-western region of Xinjiang. 

He was widely respected outside the country as a moderate voice within China’s Uighur minority community but was sentenced to life behind bars after a two-day trial in September 2014 on accusations of advocating separatism, inciting ethnic hatred, criticizing the government and voicing support for terrorists — all charges he denies.

A coalition of 10 leading rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which bestowed their annual Martin Ennals Award on Tohti, said he had worked for two decades “to foster dialogue and understanding” between Uighurs and China’s ethnic Han majority, and had rejected separatism and violence. 

But China’s Foreign Ministry said his case had nothing to do with human rights.

“In the classroom, Ilham Tohti openly made heroes of terrorist extremists that conducted violent terror attacks,” said ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “He also used his position as a lecturer to entice and coerce some people to form a group to promote and participate in East Turkestan separatist forces’ activities.”

Uighurs in Xinjiang, which is sometimes called East Turkestan, have long complained about repression and discrimination at the hands of the Chinese government. Resentment has sometimes , turned violent, as witnessed by deadly riots in 2009 and more recent terrorist attacks, apparently inspired by a violent interpretation of Islam.

Tohti began writing about problems and abuses in Xinjiang in 1994 and later set up a website that offered a counter to the official government narrative, attempting to foster discussion about the economic, social and developmental issues Uighurs face. He said the site took pains not to promote separatist ideas. 

At the time of his 2014 trial, the White House said that China’s government had failed to distinguish between peaceful dissent and violent extremism and that Tohti played a vital role in reducing inter-ethnic tension. In January this year several hundred academics petitioned Beijing to release him.

“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 the Martin Ennals Foundation’s chairman, Dick Oosting.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said that instead of criticizing the award, the Chinese government “would do better to look in the mirror — and release Tohti immediately.”

When Tohti was nominated for the award, his daughter Jewher Ilham said her father had used only one weapon in the struggle for the basic rights of Uighurs: “Words. Spoken, written, distributed and posted.

“This is all he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China found so threatening. A person like him doesn’t deserve to be in prison for even a day,” she said. 

The other finalists for this year’s award were the Ethiopian independent journalism collective Zone 9 Bloggers and Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer, activist and journalist.

In 2010, another jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and he remains behind bars. The Chinese government reacted furiously to that decision, curbing imports of Norwegian salmon.