US lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle said Wednesday they have nominated jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti -- sentenced to life in prison for "separatism" -- for the Nobel peace prize.
Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, both signed the nomination letter, which came from the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
"We believe there is no one more deserving of the Committee's recognition in 2019 than Professor Tohti, who embodies the peaceful struggle for peace and human rights in China," the lawmakers wrote to the president of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, and its other members Tuesday.
Tohti, 49, was sentenced to life in prison in September 2014 over comments he made in class, in interviews and on a website he ran that were critical of official policies directed at China's mainly Muslim Uighur minority in the restive far-west Xinjiang region.
The region has seen a security crackdown in recent years. Beijing says it faces a terror threat, but rights groups say restrictions on Islam and the Uighur language have fuelled violence.
Currently, up to one million Uighurs and members of other mostly Muslim minority groups are held in extrajudicial detention in camps in Xinjiang, according to a group of experts cited by the United Nations.
Beijing says the centers help people drawn to extremism to steer clear of terrorism, and allow them to be reintegrated into society.
"This nomination could not be more timely as the Chinese government and Communist Party continue to perpetrate gross human rights violations with over a million Uighurs and other ethnic minority Muslims detained in 'political reeducation' camps," Rubio said in a statement Wednesday.
"Ilham Tohti's peaceful efforts to promote understanding and ethnic harmony between Uighurs and Han Chinese merits recognition by the Committee."