China calls EU rights prize-winning Uighur 'a terrorist'

Beijing (AFP) –


China called jailed Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti a "terrorist" on Thursday and refused to confirm whether he was still alive, after his daughter accepted a European Parliament human rights award on his behalf.

Tohti -- a former economics professor sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 by Beijing for "separatism" -- was announced as the winner of the Sakharov Prize in October.

His daughter Jewher Ilham said as she accepted the award in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday that she did not even know if he was alive, and had not heard news of him since 2017.

When asked if Tohti was still alive on Thursday, China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not respond.

Geng denied knowledge of the rights prize -- as the foreign ministry did in October when the award was announced.

"I don't know the award you mentioned," Geng said, adding that Tohti was "a criminal sentenced by a Chinese court according to the law".

"We hope that relevant parties can respect China's internal affairs and judicial sovereignty, and not help publicise the unworthy cause of a terrorist."

Tohti, 50, ran the UighurOnline website, which wrote in Uighur and Chinese about social issues, gaining prominence as a moderate voice drawing attention to ethnic tensions in the region.

The European Parliament hailed the former economics professor as a "voice of moderation and reconciliation" in October and called for his immediate release.

China has faced growing international condemnation for rounding up an estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities in a network of internment camps.

Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, but now says they are "vocational training centres" necessary to combat terrorism.

It said earlier this month that all "students" have graduated but indicated people were still "entering and exiting" the facilities.