A prominent Chinese academic who is critical of Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority group is set to stand trial Wednesday on charges of separatism.
Ilham Tohti is an economics professor and outspoken member of the mainly Muslim group that has long complained of persecution in the far-western Xinjiang region.
Tohti, who denies the separatism charges, faces a possible sentence of life in prison if, as expected, he is convicted by the court in Urumqi, the capital of the restive region.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the case, foreign journalists and several Western diplomats were prevented by police from going near the courthouse where Tohti is being tried.
Raphael Droszewski with the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing was among those barred from attending the hearing.
“We are here today because we would like to attend the trial of Ilham Tohti. We have already expressed our concern over his indictment, especially because Mr. Tohti worked peacefully within Chinese laws for years, especially to promote a good relationship between minorities in China and for equal rights,” said Droszewski.
Tohti was arrested in January and later accused of encouraging terrorism and advocating separatism in his lectures, articles, and comments to foreign media.
His lawyers deny Tohti has ever encouraged violence and point out that he has repeatedly rejected calls for separatism or independence in Xinjiang.
The charges against Tohti come amid China’s crackdown on violent extremism in Xinjiang, where hundreds have died in about the past year.
Beijing blames the unrest on militants affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which wants to create an independent state in Xinjiang.
Many exiled Uighur groups say Beijing has exaggerated the threat and worsened the situation with its repression of Muslim religious life and favoritism toward the Han majority who have migrated to the area.
Tohti has for decades written about China’s treatment of Uighurs and has been detained or harassed several times in the past because of his views.
In November, before his arrest, Tohti told VOA that plain-clothes police rammed his car, took his phone, and threatened to kill him because of his comments to the media.
His lawyers claim Tohti has also been subject to abuse while in detention, saying his feet have been shackled and that he has been kept from food for long periods of time.