Uighur Scholar Braces for Stiff Sentence, Lawyer Says

Scholar Ilham Tohti is prepared for the worst as he faces a possible life sentence in a trial beginning today for allegedly promoting separatism for ethnic Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region, his lawyer said.

“Ilham said he’s mentally prepared for the maximum sentence, and he wants his family not to harbor hatred if that happens,” Li Fangping said in a phone interview. Li visited Tohti, 45, at a detention center in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, two days ago. The charges of separatism can carry a sentence from 10 years to life imprisonment.

The trial of the economics professor who taught at Minzu University, China’s main university for ethnic minorities, comes amid a nationwide crackdown against alleged separatists that the government blames for a series of attacks across China. On September 12, three Uighurs were given death sentences for a March knife attack at a train station in the southern city Kunming in which 33 people died.

Tohti ran a website called Uighur Online which carried discussions of China’s Xinjiang policies. He was charged with “splitting the country” in July and has been in custody since January.

More than 45 percent of Xinjiang’s population of 22 million are Uighur, a Muslim minority that speaks Turkic rather than Mandarin. Tensions between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese population periodically flare up in Xinjiang and riots in the region in 2009 killed 197 people and injured more than 1,700, according to state-run media.

Separatist Thought

Tohti used the website to spread separatist thoughts and incited his students to hate the country and overthrow the government, the Urumqi Public Security Bureau said in January.

China’s legal authorities will “use facts as basis, law as standards” to rule on the relevant case, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing in Beijing.

One of mainland’s leading human rights activists, Hu Jia, tweeted earlier today that he was summoned by police for interrogation today, possibly due to Tohti’s trial. Hu Jia has been vocal in calling for the scholar’s release.

Tohti’s trial is set to last two days and a verdict will be issued later, Li said.

“He was in poor health but in quite good mental condition,” Li said of his Sept. 15 visit. Tohti has been kept in ankle shackles for more than 40 days and has become ill from the cold because the detention center didn’t provide warm clothes, the lawyer said.

The trial is open to selected state media and four of Tohti’s family are present, Li said.

“He would like to use his own trial as an opportunity to improve understanding between Uighurs and Han people,” Li said.

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