A Beijing economics professor who had become China’s most prominent critic of government policies toward the nation’s Uighur ethnic minority was convicted on charges of separatism Tuesday and sentenced to life in prison.
The trial of Ilham Tohti had been denounced by international human rights groups and foreign governments, including the United States, who described the case as persecution of a moderate intellectual who had sought to foster dialogue between Uighurs and China’s Han ethnic majority.
The ruling by the court in Urumqi, capital of China’s far western Xinjiang province that is the homeland of China’s Uighurs, was met with disappointment and shock by many observers. Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the sentence was “incredibly harsh,” and “unprecedented for a prominent activist in China in recent memory.”
In addition to condemning Tohti to life behind bars, the court ordered complete seizure of his assets, his lawyers said.
Hu Jia, a prominent dissident in Beijing, predicted that the trial would have a chilling effect on other activists. “But obviously Tohti’s situation is rather unique,” he said in a phone interview, “since he’s the only Uighur person who has a voice in China.”
The state-controlled New China News Agency said Tohti had used his now-banned website, Uighur Online, to advocate for Xinjiang’s separation from China, as well as to encourage other Uighurs to use violence. Tohti had “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate,” the agency said.
Tohti had denied the charges, saying he never associated with any terrorist organizations or foreign groups, and “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human and legal rights for Uighurs.
The verdict comes amid a security crackdown in resource-rich Xinjiang. The province has seen a surge in bloodshed over the last year and a half that authorities say is a result of terrorists attempting to overthrow Chinese rule and establish a separate state called East Turkestan.
Activists and exile groups say that job discrimination, government policies related to Uighur language and customs, and intense security measures are causing deep resentment in Xinjiang that is leading to unrest. Members of China’s ethnic Han majority have also been migrating to the province in droves, further exacerbating tensions. Beijing says the government has improved living standards and developed the region’s economy.
Jacob Zenn, a researcher on extremism and an expert on Eurasian affairs at the Jamestown Foundation, predicted that the verdict in the Tohti case could worsen the security situation rather than improve it. Now, he said, Uighurs “will be less inclined to explore political or academic arguments to pursue their cause for greater autonomy, and make them more sympathetic to the militant cause.”
Tohti, a former economist at Minzu University in Beijing, was formally indicted on charges of separatism in July after being detained for seven months. One of his lawyers, Li Fangping, said that during his jail stay he was kept in leg irons, been given inadequate clothing and denied food.
Supporters say while the professor had questioned government policies toward the Uighurs and raised doubts about official accounts of violence involving Uighurs, his actions clearly did not constitute advocating independence for Xinjiang.
“I support the unity of the country and oppose separatism,” Tohti said during the trial. “The idea of separating the country has never occurred to me, and I have never been involved in any separatist activities. There is no separatist group.”
Tohti’s Uighur Online was an Internet forum intended to facilitate cross-cultural debate by hosting articles both in Chinese and Uighur. Tohti established the site in 2006, and told Radio Free Asia in 2008 that it occasionally received a million page views per day before it was blocked in China that year.
The site “is managed to prevent any pro-independence, separatist, or irresponsible inflammatory postings, and it does not post anything subversive,” Tohti wrote in an essay in 2011. The site has been dormant for some time, and Tohti’s name is also banned as a searchable term by China’s Internet censors.
The Public Security Bureau in Urumqi alleged in February that Tohti had used the website to recruit followers and spread separatist viewpoints.
Seven students of Tohti’s were also detained in January and formally charged with separatism, though it is unclear when they will be tried.
Tohti’s postings and lectures were used as evidence against him during the trial.
One of Tohti’s lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan, stated that he was unable to call people to speak in Tohti’s defense. “Before Ilham Tohti’s trial, we had applied to the court to summon more than a dozen witnesses, but the court refused to send out the orders,” he said.
Liu also has said that the defense team was not permitted access to all evidence used by prosecutors. Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, has said she was also not allowed any contact with her husband between the time he was detained and the trial, which she attended last week.
After the Uighur Online forum was blocked, Tohti had been closely watched by Chinese authorities, frequently put under house arrest and prevented from leaving China. After ethnic riots broke out in 2009 in Urumqi, Tohti was detained for speaking out about the situation.
In February 2013, Tohti was intercepted by security officials en route to the Beijing airport and prevented from traveling to take up a post as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.
Tohti was the 2014 recipient of the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, though the award had to be received by his daughter Jewher Illham.
“My father, Ilham Tohti, has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uighurs of Xinjiang: words,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Human Rights Watch denounced the trial as a “travesty of justice.” In a statement prior to the verdict, the organization said the prosecution was “a disturbing example of politicized show trials and intolerance for peaceful criticism,” and will only increase perceptions among Uighurs that they face discriminatory policies.
Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong, husband of Tibetan dissident writer Tsering Woeser, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that Tohti had been the only bridge linking the Uighur and Han ethnic groups. Now, he said, he had given up hope that there would be any communication between them.
The Chinese authorities, he later wrote on Twitter, “have created the Uighur Nelson Mandela.”
“They handled things the way they always have, with money and guns,” Wang said by phone. “Obviously, that’s not working.”
Julie Makinen and Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report. Silbert is a special correspondent.
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