A Chinese court has convicted a prominent Uighur on separatism charges and sentenced him to life in prison, in a ruling slammed by rights groups as unusually harsh.
Ilham Tohti is an economics professor and strident critic of China’s treatment of minority Uighurs in the far-west Xinjiang region, where unrest has killed hundreds in recent months.
Prosecutors argued during a two-day trial last week that Tohti promoted separatism and encouraged violence with his lectures, articles, and frequent comments to foreign media.
The official Xinhua news agency says the court ruled Tohti “spread lessons containing separatist thoughts” and “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students” as part of his efforts to “build a criminal syndicate.”
Xinhua said Tohti was also found guilty of inciting ethnic hatred “by distorting the causes” of Xinjiang unrest. It said he “colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international.”
The 44-year-old academic firmly rejected the accusations, saying he was only trying to promote dialogue. His lawyer, Li Fangping, says he will appeal the conviction.
“As Ilham Tohti’s defense lawyer, I think this is totally unacceptable. Ilham also said that he is innocent. He will definitely appeal. Based on the wording of the verdict, I think that this is extremely politicized,” said Li.
William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Amnesty International, said there is no evidence Tohti was involved in separatism. He told VOA that punishing such moderate voices risks further enflaming the situation in Xinjiang.
“I think this is meant to send a message to Uighur intellectuals that if you advocate any policies that differ from the current Communist Party approach, you will be silenced. Ilham Tohti was of course known for pointing out many of the discriminatory policies with regards to employment, language, political participation and other things. And if other people feel like they can’t in good faith discuss these issues, if there’s no sort of channel for that type of grievance, then I fear that it will help radicalize more people because they will not see another path in front of them,” said Nee.
Tohti, along with seven of his students, was arrested in January amid China’s crackdown on violent extremism and dissent in Xinjiang.
He has written for decades 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.
In a statement, the European Union deplored what it called the “completely unjustified” ruling, saying Beijing had not respected the due process of law.
The EU has joined the United States and numerous rights groups in urging China to release Tohti.
VOA’s William Gallo contributed to this report.