China tries seven students of jailed Uighur scholar on separatism charges

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Originally published by Bloomberg on NOVEMBER  26, 2014

China put seven students of imprisoned Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on trial on separatism charges for their involvement in his website, which the nation’s government says promotes disunity.

The students may face prison sentences of five to 15 years on conviction, according to Li Fangping, the defense lawyer for Tohti, an economics professor. Some of the students pleaded guilty at a hearing in the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, Li said.

Tohti 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 this month.

President Xi Jinping is overseeing a nationwide crackdown against alleged Uighur terrorists that 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.

Tohti, who taught at Minzu University in Beijing, China’s main university for ethnic minorities, ran a website called Uighur Online that 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 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 nongovernmental 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 “criminal separatist group.”

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