Sep 23, 2014 5:01 AM

Lawyer: Uighur scholar in China gets life sentence

The Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) A Chinese court imposed a life sentence Tuesday on a moderate scholar who championed the country's Uighur minority, the most severe penalty in a decade for anyone in China convicted of illegal political speech.

The Urumqi People's Intermediate Court handed down the sentence after convicting Ilham Tohti of separatism in a two-day trial, lawyer Li Fangping said by telephone from outside the courthouse. The court didn't answer calls seeking information about the trial.

Li said the court also ordered the confiscation of all of Ilham Tohti's possessions.

The 44-year-old defendant was calm during the session but shouted "I don't accept this!" when the sentence was read, Li said.

He is known as a moderate voice with ties to both the country's Han Chinese establishment and the Muslim Uighur ethnic group, which has long complained of harsh treatment by the government in the far western Xinjiang region. A Communist Party member and professor at Beijing's Minzu University, Ilham Tohti ran a website, Uighur Online, that highlighted issues affecting the ethnic group. Chinese authorities detained the scholar in January along with seven of his students.

"Of course, this life sentence is too much," Li said. "But he has said that no matter what the result, this should not lead to hatred. He has always said he wants to create a dialogue with the Han Chinese."

The life sentence will leave Ilham Tohti's wife, Guzulnur, with no means to take care of their two young children, Li said.

The court ruled that Ilham Tohti had "bewitched and coerced" students into working for the website and had "built a criminal syndicate," according to the government's official Xinhua News Agency.

"Tohti organized this group to write, edit, translate and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang's separation from China," Xinhua said. "Through online instigation, Tohti encouraged his fellow Uygurs to use violence."

During the trial, prosecutors cited Ilham Tohti's lectures and online writings, including his discussion of the different roots of the Han Chinese and Uighur peoples. Speaking in his own defense Thursday, Iham Tohti denied that he had encouraged separatism while addressing Xinjiang's cultural and legal challenges, Li said.

Human rights activists said the harsh sentence demonstrated the government's intolerance of criticism from even the most conciliatory of voices. Political activist Wang Bingzhang was the last person to receive a life sentence for political speech when he was convicted in 2003 after starting a pro-democracy publication outside China and founding two opposition parties in the country.

"Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges," William Nee, a China researcher at human rights group Amnesty International, said in an emailed statement. "Tohti is a prisoner of conscience and the Chinese authorities must immediately and unconditionally release him."

Chinese writer Wang Lixiong said on Twitter that the government had created a "Chinese Mandela," referring to South African leader Nelson Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years before becoming president. Columbia University Tibet specialist Robert Barnett called the sentence "deeply shocking."

Tensions have run high and flared into violence in Xinjiang, where many of China's Uighurs live. Authorities said several explosions killed two people on Sunday in central Xinjiang but did not say who carried out the attacks.

In May, 43 people died when Uighur militants plowed two vehicles through a market street in the regional capital of Urumqi and hurled explosives, police said.

Ilham Tohti's 20-year-old daughter, Jewher Ilham, said Tuesday in Indiana, where she is studying, that she will continue to fight for her father's release. Her father was arrested in January 2013 at Beijing's main airport as he was boarding a plane to take her to school in the United States.

"He wanted me to stay in a land that has freedom," she said. "I'm speaking out for him. I won't stop."


Associated Press writer Didi Tang and video journalists Isolda Morillo and Helene Franchineau contributed to this report.


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