A group of leading rights organizations has awarded its annual prize for human rights defenders to imprisoned Chinese Muslim minority economics professor Ilham Tohti.

The Martin Ennals Award is bestowed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and eight other human rights groups. The award ceremony will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening.

Tohti was given a life sentence on charges of separatism in September 2014 after a two-day trial. A member of the Turkic Muslim Uighur ethnic group, he taught at Beijing's Minzu University and was an outspoken critic of Beijing's ethnic policies in the far western region of Xinjiang.

Tohti denied advocating separatism or violence.

Seven of his students were also sentenced in what was seen as a move to strengthen the government's case against him.