Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti accused of leading group of students in trying to split Chinese state
He faces at least 10 years in jail if convicted, but insists he has always been opposed to all kinds of ethnic hatred and secession of Xinjiang autonomous region from the country
Outspoken Uygur academic Ilham Tohti has been accused of leading a group of seven students in trying to split the Chinese state, his lawyer said.
Tohti was formally charged with separatism and may face at least 10 years in jail if convicted, his lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said today following a three-hour meeting with Tohti on Tuesday.
The former economics professor at a Beijing university has insisted he has always been opposed to all kinds of ethnic hatred and the secession of the Xinjiang autonomous region from the country.
A conviction of separatism on the mainland could be punishable by death, but prosecutors in the region’s capital of Urumqi have charged him with an offence that carries a sentence of life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of at least 10 years, Liu said.
“Tohti’s defence remains that he was simply an intellectual who was a Uygur and concerned about society, especially problems about Xinjiang,” he said.
“He thinks expressing his own views on the issues was not unusual, and had nothing to do with separatism,” Liu said.
Prosecutors announced a week ago that Tohti had been formally charged with separatism, following his detention in mid-January, which sparked renewed international calls for his release.
The case has attracted high-level concern in the United States and European Union and is seen by rights groups as part of China’s crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uygurs and the majority Han Chinese has led to outbreaks of violence.
“We thought he might face a death sentence, but the prosecutor did not charge him under Article 113, which carries a death sentence,” Liu said. “It shows they don’t not have enough evidence for that.”
Prosecutors have charged Tohti with an offence under Article 103, which targets ringleaders and others who organise, plot or carry out a scheme to split the state or undermine the unity of the country; Article 113 targets those who endanger national security.
Tohti has been charged with leading a group of seven other university students. Some of them were Tohti’s students, Liu said after being shown the charge sheet.
“He was in good spiritual health when we met him yesterday, although he has visibly lost a lot of weight,” he said. Another defence lawyer, Li Fangping, also attended the meeting.
The two lawyers’ were unable to obtain a full copy of the charge sheet because officials told them the relevant officers were away, Liu said. Tohti had shown them the charge sheet, and they would prepare his defence once they had received a copy, he said.
Six other people, accused of drug offences and theft, were held in the same room, Liu said.
Tohti has been a vocal critic of the government’s policies towards the Muslim Uygur minority, who are concentrated in Xinjiang.
The move to file charges against him comes as the authorities carry out a crackdown following a series of violent attacks, which Beijing has blamed on religious extremists and “terrorists” seeking independence for Xinjiang.
The violence has grown more frequent during the past year and has even spilled outside the vast, resource-rich region.
A knife attack at Kunming railway station in Yunnan Province left 29 people dead and 143 injured on March 1, only four days before the Communist Party’s annual parliamentary sessions.
A suicide bombing killed 39 people at a market in Urumqi in May. About 100 people died when knife-wielding attackers carried out attacks in two towns in the south of the region late last month, state media said. Among those killed were 59 “terrorists”, who were shot dead by police, state media said.