China jails outspoken Uighur scholar for life

Comments Off on China jails outspoken Uighur scholar for life

Originally published by USA TODAY on September 23, 2014

BEIJING — A court in China on Tuesday found a prominent scholar from the country’s Uighur minority group guilty of “separatism” and sentenced him to life in prison, his lawyer said.

Ilham Tohti, 44, was convicted of advocating for separatism for Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland in northwest China. However, while Tohti criticized Chinese government policy, he opposed independence for the restive region.

“I refuse to accept the verdict,” Tohti said Tuesday, before being taken away by court police, according to his lawyer Li Fangping, who called the sentence “very harsh.” Li said the severity of the sentence was connected to the trial being held in Xinjiang — the epicenter of a security crackdown — rather than in Beijing, Tohti’s long-term residence.

The heavy sentence underscores Beijing’s determination to silence dissent and prevent even moderate criticism of its controversial policies in Xinjiang, including an anti-terror crackdown and restrictions on Uighur culture and freedoms.

Tohti may appeal, although legal precedent in China suggests such a move will prove fruitless. Both the United States and the European Union have previously called for Tohti’s release.

Human right groups, lawyers and friends of Tohti accuse authorities of using trumped-up charges and illegal procedures to silence the Uighur intellectual.

Overseas activists argue that Beijing’s repressive policies fuel a cycle of violence that has killed more than 300 people in the past year.

“Silencing a moderate Uyghur voice for reform of govt policy in Xinjiang is no way for reducing ethnic tension,” tweeted Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based lobbying group.

William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said Tohti’s sentence was foreseeable but still harsher than expected. “Authorities are trying to send a message to moderate Uighur intellectuals and others involved in promoting freedom of expression on the Internet, and Han dissidents too,” he said.

Tohti was seized in January in Beijing, where he had long worked as an economist at China’s main university for ethnic minorities. He was secretly taken to Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, where he was unable to meet his lawyers for five months.

There, the outspoken scholar was charged with leading and organizing a group of seven university students trying to “undermine the unity of the country.” The students had worked on a website Tohti founded to promote understanding of Uighur issues and dialogue between China’s majority Han ethnic group and the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim people.

But a guilty verdict was never in doubt. Controlled by the ruling Communist Party, China’s courts have a near-100% conviction rate.

In March, Xinjiang’s regional chairman Nur Bekri said the evidence against Tohti was “irrefutable,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

In detention, Tohti has been mistreated, denied food and warm clothes, and forced to wear ankle shackles since August, his lawyer Li has said.

Tohti’s wife, Guzailai Nu’er, who saw him for the first time in eight months at the trial, must now raise their two young sons without access to the family’s assets — frozen by authorities, according to Li. His daughter, Jewher Ilham, 20, lives in effective exile in the USA, where she is studying.

Tohti had earlier vowed that whatever befalls him he will continue to pursue Uighur rights inside China.

“If I have to be imprisoned, then I will remain in a Chinese prison,” he said before his arrest, according to comments compiled by his friend Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer, and translated by the U.S.-based China Change website.

“After my release from prison, I will still be in China seeking a future for the Uighurs,” he said. “If I die, I have only one desire: to be buried in my hometown. It would be enough of a solace for me.”

In prison, Tohti could become a potent symbol for the Uighurs, said his friend Wang Lixiong, a Han intellectual. “China has created a Uighur (Nelson) Mandela,” Wang tweeted Tuesday.

Back to Top