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Uighur scholar jailed for life

September 23, 2014

A Chinese court has sentenced a prominent Uighur scholar to life imprisonment on charges of inciting "separatism." His detention and conviction have sparked international protest.

In this Feb. 4, 2013 photo, Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, China. . (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Image: picture-allianceAP Photo/Andy Wong

A Chinese court on Tuesday handed down a sentence of life imprisonment to a well-known scholar from China's Uighur minority after convicting him of inciting "separatism."

The court in the capital of the restive Xinjiang region, Urumqi, announced the sentence against the 44-year-old scholar, Ilham Tohti, after a two-day trial last week. One of his lawyers said Tohti would appeal, although such actions are rarely successful in the Communist-Party-controlled courts.

The official Xinhua news agency said the court heard that Tohti "spread lessons containing separatist thoughts via the website Uygur Online."

"He bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate according to the ruling," the agency said. It also said he incited violence.

Rights advocate

Tohti, a former university professor and advocate for minority rights, was arrested at his Beijing apartment in January along with some of his students after criticizing the official response to a suicide car attack last October in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which authorities claimed was carried out by Uighur separatists.

He himself had spoken out against independence for Xinjiang in interviews, but his advocacy of more rights for Uighurs has in the past resulted in his frequently being put under house arrest and prevented from leaving the country.

The Xinjiang region, home to about 10 million members of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, has seen a wave of deadly violence over the last year that Beijing blames on militant separatists. Rights groups say the unrest has been fueled by government discrimination and repression of the Uighurs' religion and language.

International condemnation

Tohti's detention in January provoked calls for his release from the European Union, the United States and several human rights groups, who have also condemned Tuesday's verdict.

A researcher for US-based group Human Rights Watch, Maya Wang, said the sentence was unprecedented in view of the moderate criticism expressed by Tohti, calling it "extremely harsh", "unexpected" and "shocking."

William Nee, China researcher at human rights group Amnesty International, said the judgement against Tohti had "no basis in reality."

"Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges," Nee said.

Amnesty said on its website that Tohti had been tortured while in detention, denied food for 10 days and tied up for 20 days. The organization also noted a number of legal shortcomings in his trial, saying his lawyers had been refused access to evidence and not been allowed to meet Tohti for six months.

Tohti's conviction comes amid a harsh crackdown on dissidents spearheaded by President Xi Jinping. Dozens of academics, journalists and activists have been detained or jailed, but the verdict against Tohti is the most severe in years.

tj/nm (AFP, dpa)