STRASBOURG, FRANCE - A Uighur scholar imprisoned in China since 2014 was jointly awarded a top European human rights prize on Monday, an accolade likely to draw the ire of Beijing.
Ilham Tohti, 49, is serving a life sentence on charges of separatism for advocating the rights of Uighurs, a Muslim minority in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China.
The Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, named after the Czech ex-president, dissident and writer, was awarded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to Tohti and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), a group created in 2003 to help foster postwar reconciliation in the Balkans.
Rights groups say the Uighurs have suffered a severe crackdown that has seen millions interned in re-education camps whose existence China denied until recently.
Earlier this month, the prosecutor's office in Xinjiang said one in five arrests made in China in 2017 took place in the region, even though it represents just two percent of the country's population.
Beijing had already slammed the PACE last month for nominating Tohti for the Vaclav Havel prize, saying it was effectively "supporting terrorism".
"Today's prize honors one person, but it also recognizes a whole population in giving the entire Uighur people a voice," said Enver Can of the Ilham Tohti Initiative, which received the award on Tohti's behalf, according to a Twitter post by the PACE.
The YIHR's prize was accepted by Ivan Djuric of YIHR Serbia, who warned about the growing danger from a resurgence in nationalist parties and policies in a region where ethnic divisions have often flared into violence.
"Don't play deaf to the sound of war drums from the Balkans... "We're not strangers, we're Europeans," the council tweeted, quoting Djuric.
Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said on Twitter, "In honoring them [both prize winners], we also send a message of hope to the millions of people they represent and for whom they work: human rights have no frontiers."