Sep 19, 2014 12:09 AM

Minority scholar denies separatism at China trial

The Associated Press

URUMQI, China (AP) A prominent Muslim Uighur scholar being tried on separatism charges told a court in far western China that he never advocated the overthrow of Chinese rule in his native Xinjiang, according to his lawyer.

Attorney Liu Xiaoyuan said government critic and former Beijing economics professor Ilham Tohti addressed the court for about 90 minutes on Thursday afternoon before the two-day trial ended. There was no immediate verdict.

Liu said the scholar asked that his trial be moved to Beijing where he lived and taught, and if it stayed in Urumqi, Xinjiang's regional capital, that the court deliberate in a fair manner.

The attorney said prosecutors told the court that Ilham Tohti's writings and classroom lectures were evidence that he had fomented ethnic hatred in Xinjiang. Tensions between the region's Uighur population and the majority Han Chinese have frequently exploded into deadly violence.

"He said he is innocent," Liu said outside the Urumqi People's Intermediate Court. "He didn't organize any activity advocating the country's separation."

Police tightly secured the area around the court, keeping away journalists and Western diplomats from eight nations and the European Union who traveled to Urumqi in an attempt to witness the trial. Some of Ilham Tohti's relatives, including his wife Guzulnur, were allowed to attend the proceedings.

The court posted a message on its social media account Thursday saying "the rights of the defendant and his lawyers were fully protected according to law during the court proceedings." It didn't specify when a verdict would be announced.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing issued a statement on Thursday calling for Ilham Tohti's release.

"His arrest silenced an important Uighur voice that peacefully promoted harmony and understanding among China's ethnic groups particularly Uighurs," the embassy said.

Separatism carries punishments up to death. Another of his attorneys, Li Fangping, said he expects Ilham Tohti will face from 10 years to life in prison. The attorneys said they didn't know when the court would reach a verdict, but such decisions can take weeks.

The Uighur scholar's supporters say he is a moderate who has sought a middle road in resolving the region's tensions and that the case against him reflects Communist Party-ruled China's unwillingness to allow criticism and free speech.

Li said prosecutors on Wednesday cited Ilham Tohti's online articles about Uighur rights, education and Christianity. They also quoted comments he made to the typically ethnic minority students who took his classes at Beijing's Minzu University, including his strong emphasis on proclaiming Uighurs to be distinct from the Han majority, Li said.

Chinese authorities also detained seven of Ilham Tohti's students when they apprehended him in January, said the parents of one student who were waiting outside the courthouse Wednesday. The parents said they had not heard any news of their son since his arrest.

Ilham Tohti has long been a critic of what he calls the systematic exclusion of Uighurs from the economic benefits brought to Xinjiang by Han migrants, and has sought to prevent the Turkic Uighur language and culture from being marginalized.

But he was also known as a more mainstream Uighur voice, a Communist Party member and teacher at a top Chinese university who used his website, Uighur Online, as a forum for issues affecting his ethnic group.

Several people in Urumqi's main Uighur district said many people had been detained in the city after recent ethnic violence, including an attack in May attributed to Uighur separatists who drove two large sport utility vehicles and hurled explosives on an Urumqi market street, killing 43.

In many ways, the Uighurs here live in a separate world from the Han Chinese who outnumber them in the regional capital. Many speak only the Uighur language and stay in their own part of town. Some people even keep their watches set two hours before the official time, which matches Beijing's time some 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) to the east, but means the sun rises at around 8 a.m.

Authorities have accused Ilham Tohti of fomenting some of the recent violence. More than 300 people have been killed over the past year and a half, nearly half of them shot by police in a strike-hard campaign launched by the government to fight what it calls terrorist cells.


Associated Press journalists Ian Mader and Louise Watt in Beijing and Helene Franchineau in Urumqi contributed to this report.


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