China Sentences Uighur Scholar’s Tohti Students to Up to 8 Years

China sentenced seven students of incarcerated scholar Ilham Tohti, a member of the country’s Uighur minority, to three to eight years in prison for separatism, Hong Kong government broadcaster RTHK said.

The verdicts followed a trial held last month, RTHK said on its website, citing Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fanging. The government had accused Tohti and his students of forming a criminal gang that sought to split northwestern China’s Xinjiang region from the rest of the country. The students had helped Tohti run a website on Uighur issues.

Tohti, an economics professor, was sentenced to life in prison in September after he was convicted of promoting separatism in 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. The sentence was upheld on appeal last month.

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.

A court in Xinjiang sentenced eight people to death yesterday for alleged involvement in two terrorist attacks in April and May in Urumqi, the regional capital, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Tohti, 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 was taken into custody in January and was charged in July with “splitting the country.”

Religious Restrictions

China’s official Xinhua, citing the ruling by the Intermediate People’s Court of Urumqi, said in September that 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 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.”

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