Uighur Scholar Tohti Jailed for Life for Inciting Separatism

Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of promoting separatism in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang in a verdict that underlines China’s intolerance toward criticism of its ethnic policies.

The court also ordered the seizure of all of Tohti’s assets, one of his defense lawyers, Li Fangping, said by telephone, adding that the harshness of the sentence was surprising. Tohti, 45, plans to appeal the verdict within 10 days, he said.

“This is really tough to accept,” Li said. “Anything relating to Xinjiang these days is dealt with harshly. Part of this was to send a message.”

President Xi Jinping is overseeing a nationwide crackdown against alleged Uighur terrorists, which has included several shootouts, mass arrests and a stadium trial at which people were sentenced to death. Human rights activists charge that Tohti’s trial was rife with abuses and violated Chinese and international standards.

“Even his prosecution, let alone such severe punishment, was a gross miscarriage of justice,” said Michael Davis, a Hong Kong University law professor. “This man was a long time promoter of reconciliation. He has done nothing more than what scholars all around the world do in assessing such policies.”

The Uyghur American Association, in an e-mail, called for the immediate release of Tohti and said it condemns the life sentence “in the strongest terms.”

‘Criminal Syndicate’

Tohti, an economics professor who taught at Minzu University in Beijing, China’s main university for ethnic minorities, ran a website called Uighur Online which carried discussions of China’s policies in Xinjiang, where Muslim Uighurs face restrictions on their personal and religious freedoms. He has been in custody since January and was charged in July with “splitting the country.”

Xinhua, China’s official news agency, citing the ruling by the Intermediate People’s Court of Urumqi, said Tohti “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate.”

According to the ruling, Tohti organized this group to write, edit, translate and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang’s separation from China, Xinhua said.

The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a coalition of Chinese and international human rights non-governmental organizations, said that at the trial last week Tohti maintained that he had never advocated for breaking up the Chinese state in his postings and comments on the site, and that he has never organized his students, who helped maintain the site, to form a so-called “criminal separatist group.”

Denied Counsel

“He is certainly a Uighur nationalist even if he doesn’t have in mind the creation of a separate Uighur state,” said Barry Sautman, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who has met Tohti. “But he didn’t denounce separatism. That set off alarms.”

According to the CHRD, Tohti was arrested on Jan. 15, and only allowed to meet his lawyers on June 26, after being denied legal counsel for six months. At his trial, the court refused to call any of the defendant’s witnesses to testify, and barred any members of the public, including diplomats and journalists, from entering the courtroom, the CHRD said.

Seven of Tohti’s students were also detained and accused of being part of a so-called “separatist group” with him, the CHRD said.

Three calls to the Urumqi Intermediate Court went unanswered today.

“The EU deplores that the due process of law wasn’t respected, in particular with regard to the right to a proper defense,” said Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU’s foreign service. “We call for his immediate and unconditional release as well as the release of all his supporters detained in relation to his case.”

Ethnic Divide

More than 45 percent of Xinjiang’s population of 22 million are Uighur, a minority that speaks a Turkic language 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.

China’s response to the unrest has been to tighten security, promote economic development in the province, and encourage more Han Chinese to move there, according to Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“The biggest beneficiaries of Xinjiang’s economic growth turned out to be the Han Chinese migrants, not the native Uighurs,” Chang wrote in a Sept. 17 report. “That left the Uighurs feeling not only relatively poorer, but also brushed aside by the influx of Han Chinese. Meanwhile, tighter security meant that Chinese police and security forces had been set on a hair trigger to react to any suspicion of Uighur unrest.”

Kunming Attack

In March, knife-wielding Uighur assailants killed 29 people at a train station in the southern city of Kunming, for which three were sentenced to death on Sept. 12. In June, three others were sentenced to death for planning a fatal car crash near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that killed two tourists.

On July 28, 96 people were killed in clashes in the western Xinjiang region during celebrations to mark the end of the monthlong Ramadan festival.

At least two people were killed and dozens injured by a series of blasts on Sept. 21 in Xinjiang.

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