A court in China's western province of Xinjiang has sentenced seven students of imprisoned professor and Uighur rights advocate Ilham Tohti to up to eight years in prison in a case criticized by human rights advocates.
The students went on trial last month in the provincial capital, Urumqi, accused of being part of a separatist group because of their relationship with Tohti. The professor had worked at Beijing's Minzu University and criticized government policies toward Uighurs, a Muslim minority concentrated in Xinjiang that speaks a language separate from Mandarin Chinese. In September, Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for separatist activities, and lost his appeal late last month.
The students had assisted Tohti in running his website, Uighur Online, which published articles in Chinese and Uighur and which Tohti said aimed to foster mutual understanding between the two groups. The website was held as evidence that Tohti "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students."
"I think they were sentenced pretty severely because the crime they were charged with [carries a possible sentence] of three to 10 years. Only one of the students was sentenced to three years, with the rest receiving longer terms," said Liu Xiaoyuan, Tohti's lawyer.
During Tohti's trial, prosecutors provided testimony from some of Tohti's former students, with one of them, Luo Yiwei, accusing Tohti of blackmail. Luo had done some technical support for the website in 2006. Tohti has disputed this, and said the students' statements were made under pressure.
Liu, the attorney, said six of the seven students pleaded guilty to the charges in an attempt to get more lenient sentences. It was unclear whether they will try to appeal, though China's courts are not independent from the ruling Communist Party and appeals rarely succeed.
The trials of Tohti and his students follow a series of violent attacks that have killed hundreds to date. Authorities have placed the blame on Uighur militants, saying minority extremists want to break away from China and create a new homeland called East Turkestan.
Many Uighurs have bristled at government policies that they claim limit religious freedom and local customs. Authorities have imposed regulations on what kind of head coverings women in Xinjiang may wear, for example, and have sought to dissuade young men from growing beards. Government employees and students have been encouraged to eat during the day during the month of Ramadan, when many Muslims traditionally fast from sunrise to sunset.
Tohti was widely regarded as a moderate voice in the Uighur community who supporters say encouraged debate rather than violence. Tohti insisted that he "relied only on pen and paper" to protect Uighur rights.
“It seems the students’ sentences are part of authorities’ efforts to frame Ilham Tohti as the head of a separatist organization,” said Maya Wang, a researcher for
Wang noted that her group was concerned about the conditions of the students, because Tohti has been shackled and mistreated, and his lawyers complained about having limited access to information.
"The case of the students is related to that of Tohti. It was on trumped-up charges that have no basis," Wang said.
China's state-run media has not mentioned their trial, though rights groups have identified the students. Clips of several of them detailing allegations against Tohti were aired on state-run television this fall.
Six of the students put on trial are Uighurs, with the remaining defendant, Luo, a member of the Yi minority. He received the minimum sentence of three years.
The United States has called for the release of Tohti and his students.
Meanwhile, eight other people were sentenced to death this week for two violent incidents in Xinjiang this spring.
Six men were sentenced for an April bombing at an Urumqi train station. Two others were sentenced for an attack with knives and bombs that happened nearly a month later.
Silbert is a special correspondent.
Tommy Yang of the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.