Prominent Chinese Scholar Defends Himself At Separatist Trial

Chinese scholar Ilham Tohti is expected to defend himself Thursday against separatism charges at the second day of his trial in the restive region of Xinjiang.

Tohti, an economics professor, is a member of the mainly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority group, which he says is suffering persecution at the hands of China.

One of Tohti’s lawyers, Li Fangping, told VOA on Wednesday his client rejected the separatism charges, saying the testimony against him was not trustworthy. 

“Many of the testimonies were illogical, and that was why we raised doubts. Why were the organizers and members of the secessionist forces brought separately to trial? The security forces have investigated the case as a group of eight secessionists, but [split their trials]. Ilham was also very annoyed about it. And in this respect, there was no justice in the trial,” said Li.

Prosecutors have pointed to lectures and writings from Tohti’s “Uyghur Online” website that, they say, proves he is leading a group trying to overthrow China’s rule of Xinjiang.

Seven of his students are believed to have been arrested shortly after Tohti was taken into custody in January. At least some of them are thought to be testifying against him this week.

Tohti faces a possible sentence of life in prison if, as expected, he is convicted. His lawyers expect the trial to conclude Thursday, but say a verdict will not likely come until later.

Police have set up a multi-block perimeter around the courthouse, blocking access for journalists and Western diplomats who tried to attend the hearing.  

Tohti was arrested in January and later accused of encouraging terrorism and advocating separatism in his lectures, articles, and comments to foreign media.

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.

Chinese state media on Thursday said four people were sentenced to up to 20 years in jail after they were convicted of charges, including manufacturing explosives, joining a terror group, and harboring suspects.

The court in Yunnan province said “the gang was influenced by religious extremism and made explosives in Beijing and Yunnan, attempting to launch a jihad.” It said they were trying to leave China to fight, but did not specify where.

Many exiled Uighur groups say Beijing has exaggerated the terrorism 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 plainclothes 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.

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