Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang on Friday rejected an appeal by jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti against his life sentence for “separatism.”
The former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing was sentenced to life in prison, along with deprivation of political rights and confiscation of all his assets, following his conviction on a charge of “separatism” by the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court in Xinjiang on Sept. 23.
Tohti, 44, immediately voiced protest when the verdict and sentence was announced, despite arguments from his defense team that much of the evidence against him was dubious, and launched an appeal.
But the Urumqi High People’s Court rejected his appeal on Friday at a behind-closed-doors reading of its judgment, despite repeated bids by Tohti’s defense team to have the appeal heard in court.
Ilham Tohti. Credit Andy Wong/Associated Press
“[Tohti] became very passionate and argued a number of points,” his lawyer Li Fangping, who was present at the meeting, told RFA after the decision was announced.
“He said that this was an unfair judgment and that not all of the material facts of the case had been established,” Li said.
“He said they were trampling the law.”
Tohti has already said repeatedly that he will appeal to a higher court, if this appeal is rejected, Li said.
Tohti’s older brother and his wife were allowed to attend the meeting in the police-run Urumqi No. 1 Detention center, Li added.
Initially, the authorities had ruled that no one but Tohti, his lawyers, court officials and law-enforcement officials, could attend, but the two relatives were invited at the last minute following repeated pleas by defense lawyers, he said.
Li said he had fully expected the appeal to be rejected.
“Ilham wrote 100 pages of argument to support his appeal, but the judge didn’t even take it from him,” he said. “He just handed out the written judgment.”
“I don’t think that they are sincere about a full and fair trial if they can ignore important material like that,” Li added.
“There are more holes in this case than a leaky sieve.”
Ilham Tohti in 2013. Photo by Andy Wong Associated Press
Move to prison
Defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who was appearing in court elsewhere at the time of the appeal meeting, said it’s now likely that Tohti will to be moved to a prison to serve his life sentence.
“The judgment has just become effective, and the rules state that he will be moved to a prison with a period of one month,” Liu said.
Tohti’s Beijing-based wife Guzelnur, who has been left with the care of the couple’s young sons, said she is bitterly disappointed by the decision.
“I had really hoped they would cut the sentence a bit,” she told RFA shortly after receiving the news.
“My mind is so confused right now, and I find it hard to think straight,” she said. “I am still waiting for further news.”
“I don’t know anything about what went on there.”
Tohti’s conviction sparked a wave of condemnation in China and from the international community, with human rights activists saying he never received the benefit of a fair trial, and that he should never have been tried in the first place for exercising his constitutional right to free expression.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said he was very angry at the decision, although it had come as no surprise.
“Xinjiang is full of violent acts, and yet here you have a Uyghur who is advocating peaceful dialogue and mutual understanding,” Hu said. “He is the conscience of the Uyghur people.”
“His imprisonment under China’s inhuman stability maintenance regime shows us that the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party doesn’t accept peaceful dialogue,” he said.
“So now, Uyghurs have nothing left but violence as a way of making their voices heard.”
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) group, said he had expected Tohti’s appeal to be rejected.
“The verdict and sentence handed to him by the Chinese authorities is entirely politically motivated,” Raxit said. “They are just using a legal form.”
“The message from the Chinese government is that there will be no change to its repressive policies targeting Uyghurs.”
‘Travesty of justice’
The Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) asked the international community on Friday to “step up condemnation of China’s persecution of Ilham Tohti and his family and publicly express its concern over the fate of his students who are awaiting trial.
“Even with the disapproval of the international community over Ilham Tohti’s case still ringing in its ears, the Chinese authorities proceeded to deliver an appeal verdict that is clearly a travesty of justice and motivated by political considerations,” said UAA president Alim Seytoff in a statement.
“The calls for Ilham Tohti’s immediate and unconditional release need to be made bluntly to Chinese officials. Otherwise, the fate of not only Ilham Tohti and his students is perilous, but also any other Uyghur who exercises the fundamental right to freedom of speech.”
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year anti-terrorism campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Exile Uyghur groups have repeatedly said the root causes of recent violence in Xinjiang lie with China’s treatment of peaceful Uyghur dissidents.
Radio Free Asia
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Prosecution of Uighur Students Underscores Perils of Chinese Clampdown
The New York Times
BEIJING — Ambitious and fluent in Mandarin, the young Uighur strivers from the Xinjiang region of northwest China had earned coveted slots at the nation’s top university for ethnic minorities. Most were the first in their families to attend college.
But since last January, at least five men and women who attended Minzu University in Beijing have been incommunicado after they were swept up by Chinese security forces alongside their mentor, Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur professor who in September was convicted of separatism and sentenced to life in prison.
Minzu University, Beijing
Among those in detention are a young Uighur couple who fell in love while studying at Minzu University, a web designer from the Yi minority of China’s mountainous southwest and a sociology student whose mother is a Communist Party member. “No one will tell us what is happening to him,” one relative of the sociology student said. “We have nowhere else to turn.”
The White House and international rights advocates have condemned Mr. Tohti’s conviction as politically motivated, noting his reputation as a proponent of nonviolence and ethnic reconciliation. On Friday, Xinjiang’s highest court rejected his appeal.
On Tuesday, at least three of the students are expected to stand trial on charges that their volunteer work for the news website Mr. Tohti ran constituted “splittism” or involved “revealing state secrets,” presumably because some of the articles they translated or posted were critical of government policies in Xinjiang, the turbulent homeland of China’s Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.
Human rights advocates have few illusions that the students will escape serious punishment. “This is potentially one of the biggest tragedies of China’s human rights of the past years,” said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “These students are scapegoats being used in the prosecution of Tohti, but the evidence that they were part of a network that sought to subvert the state isn’t very compelling.”
Their prosecution, cloaked in intense secrecy, underscores the perils facing Uighurs amid a harsh clampdown on intellectual and religious life in Xinjiang, the vast borderlands that have become a geopolitical linchpin of China’s plans to expand its influence in Central Asia. In recent months, hundreds of young men across the region have been detained by Chinese security forces in a campaign that is ostensibly aimed at stanching jihadist activity but which critics say is often arbitrary and abusive.
In the days after Mr. Tohti’s conviction, three of his students, dressed in orange prison vests, appeared on state-run television to confess that they had exaggerated ethnic tensions on Uighur Online, the website run by Mr. Tohti. In his confession, Perhat Halmurat, the sociology student and a former editor of the website, blamed his teacher for an article he posted about a fight between a Han and Uighur student that had taken place on campus. “His unspeakable goal is to split the country,” he said.
Those who know Mr. Halmurat say he was popular among his classmates and proud of his Uighur heritage. “His bedroom is filled with awards that attest to his academic achievements,” a relative said.
Among the best-known detainees are Mutellip Imin, another sociology student, and his girlfriend, Atikem Rozi, a spirited young woman from the northern city of Hami. In 2012, Ms. Rozi caused a stir after she published an essay about the government’s refusal to issue her a passport, thwarting her plans to study abroad.
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