A Chinese court has sentenced the country’s most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people to life in prison on separatism charges, his lawyer has said, in a case that has provoked an international outcry.
The Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court announced the verdict against economics professor Ilham Tohti on Tuesday, following a two-day trial last week in the western region of Xinjiang.
Tohti, seen by many as a moderate voice who spoke out about the plight of Uighers under majority Han Chinese rule, was detained in January along with seven of his students.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Urumqi, said that “human rights groups deny that he advocated separatism”.
“He was a considered a moderating influence, the sort of person who could have played a mediating role between the government and those groups in Xianjang who want to wage war against Chinese rule,” Brown said.
“He apparently uttered just one sentence after the verdict. He said: ‘I do not agree’.”
Tohti’s lawyer told the Reuters news agency that his client was innocent and would appeal against the verdict.
“This case was extremely politicised,” Li Fangping said.
A Communist Party member and professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, Tohti ran a website, Uighur Online, that highlighted issues affecting the minority ethnic group.
“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”.
Prosecutors in Xinjiang said Tohti had promoted independence for the region on his website.
But according to Li, Tohti told the court last week he established the website to promote dialogue between Uighur and Han scholars and that he had publicly opposed separatism and violence.
Tohti had rejected the prosecution’s evidence and said statements against him by student volunteers who had worked on the website were made under pressure from authorities.
The charge of separatism carries a maximum penalty of death in extreme cases.
Amnesty International, the human rights group, released a statement condemning Tohti’s prison sentence.
“This shameful judgement 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,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Tohti is a prisoner of conscience and the Chinese authorities must immediately and unconditionally release him.”
The United States, the European Union and human rights groups have called for Tohti’s release after a nine-month detention widely seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to violence.
The government blames a series of violent attacks in which hundreds have died on armed groups who it says want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkestan.
Some activists say the government’s repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest.
Tohti, who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and has “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.