A Chinese court convicted a moderate Uighur scholar of separatism and sentenced him to life in prison Tuesday following what human rights advocates called “a show trial” likely to worsen ethnic tensions in the far west of China.
The scholar, Ilham Tohti, had operated a website critical of Chinese policies against Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims who call China’s Xinjiang region their homeland. Authorities arrested him at his home in Beijing in January, following several years of detentions and official harassment.
Along with handing down a life sentence to the 44-year-old economics professor, the court confiscated all of his possessions, according to his lawyers and state media. That means Ilham Tohti’s wife and two young sons may soon be destitute.
Human rights groups deplored the verdict and the trial, which was held last week in a closed court in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Several said there was nothing in Ilham Tohti’s writings or recent history to suggest he supports Xinjiang’s independence movement.
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“This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges,” William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, called on foreign governments, especially those that have human rights dialogues with China, to condemn the life sentence. “An incredibly harsh sentence, unprecedented for a prominent activist in China in recent memory,” Maya Wang, a Human Rights Watch researcher, wrote on Twitter.
Before his arrest, Ilham Tohti taught economics at Beijing’s Minzu University of China and was a founder of UighurOnline, a website that focused on Chinese treatment of Uighurs. While Ilham Tohti has been highly critical of what he calls Beijing’s exclusionary policies toward his people, he advocated dialogue between Uighurs and Han Chinese. He also repeatedly declared that he had no interest in becoming a political figure.
“I have always endeavored to avoid being treated as a political symbol in any way, even when it is well intentioned,” he wrote in a 2011 essay, available on the website Chinachange.org. “It is my belief that I will not be doing a service to my ethnic group and my country unless I remain a scholar – a ‘clean’ one at that.”
According to China’s state-run news service Xinhua, the Intermediate People’s Court of Urumqi ruled that Ilham Tohti had “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate.” The court also ruled that he’d “colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international.”
Beijing keeps a tight leash on ethnic groups who live in Xinjiang, a vast desert region that borders several Central Asian countries stretching from Pakistan to Kazakhstan. Although some Uighurs have benefited from China’s economic growth, many are denied passports and access to jobs available to Han Chinese who’ve migrated into the region. Some fear their culture will eventually disappear under Beijing’s aggressive efforts to assimilate them and flood more Han into their historic homeland.
With Tuesday’s sentencing, China’s government seems to be sending a message that any Uighur dissent, even that from a well-known and cautious intellectual, will not be tolerated.
Yet according to several analysts, such harsh policies could prompt more Uighurs to abandon peaceful dissent and join insurgents who’ve recently carried out acts of terrorism in Xinjiang and other parts of China. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing suggested as much in a statement last week. “We stress the importance of Chinese authorities differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism,” said an embassy spokesman.
According to members of Ilham Tohti’s family, Chinese authorities began harassing the professor and his family soon after ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009 left hundreds of people dead. Authorities confiscated the family’s phones and computers and forced them from their residence three years ago, according to Jewher Ilham, the scholar’s daughter, who testified before a congressional committee in April.
“In December 2011, I returned home from school one day to find an empty home. My stepmother, my father and my brothers had been sent to Hainan for two weeks,” Jewher Ilham said in comments to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Last fall, she said, state security personnel rammed her father’s car and told him they’d kill everyone in the family. A few months later, he was detained for 10 days. Then the government arrested him in January and later charged him with heading “an eight-member separatist criminal organization,” according to his lawyers. Seven of his students were arrested and face separate trials.
“Anyone who knows my father knows how false these charges are,” Jewher Ilham, a student at Indiana University, said in her testimony. “My father never speaks about separatism. By arresting my father, China has driven Uighurs to understand their justified grievances cannot get any sort of hearing.”
Over the last year, Uighur militants have carried out fatal attacks in Beijing, Kunming, Urumqi and other parts of Xinjiang. Another violent incident occurred Sunday, a series of explosions that killed at least two people in Luntai county, southwest of Urumqi, according to state media.
On Monday, a newspaper affiliated with China’s Communist Party asserted that Xinjiang insurgents had fled the region to get terrorist training from members of the Islamic State. The article by Global Times followed news reports this month that Indonesia had detained four Uighur-speaking foreigners for suspected involvement with Islamist militant groups.
Human Rights Watch is dubious that all the attacks in China have been the work of a coordinated terrorist group but acknowledges it’s hard to know. “Because the government denies international and domestic observers, including journalists, the freedom to investigate developments in the region, there is almost no independent information about these incidents that would enable verification of the government’s claims,” it said in a statement last week.