Trial of Uighur scholar resumes in China

Prominent academic Ilham Tohti faces 10 years to life in prison on charges rights activists dismiss as arbitrary.

    Trial of Uighur scholar resumes in China
    Human Rights Watch says Tohti's trial, in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, is a 'travesty of justice' [Getty Images]

    The trial of a Muslim Uighur scholar, accused of separatism in his native region of Xinjiang, has resumed for the second day in the regional capital of Urumqi.  

    Ilham Tohti appeared in court on Thursday to deny the Chinese government's accusation that his writings and classroom lectures were a campaign to split his native Xinjiang region from China.

    The expected two-day trial that started on Wednesday had been closed to foreign reporters and observers, including diplomats from the US and EU.

    In advance of the trial, Tohti's lawyer Li Fanping said prosecutors cited Ilham Tohti's online articles about Uighur rights, education and Christianity.

    They also cited his classroom pronouncements 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 China's Han majority, Li said.

    Minzu University specialises in ethnic minority studies.

    "The next step will be to explain that this material does not amount to separatism," Li told the AP news agency from Urumqi, where the trial was held.

    Tohti is accused of fomenting ethnic hatred and unrest to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang, which has seen an increase in violence over the past 18 months that authorities blame on "terrorist cells" seeking a separate state.

    Verdict pending

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

    A verdict was not expected until later.

    Ilham Tohti could face from 10 years to life in prison, Li said.

    On Wednesday, police set up a two-block cordon around the court in Urumqi and blocked access to reporters and a group of at least nine Western diplomats who sought to observe the trial, one diplomat said by telephone.

    Tohti's case, which has attracted high-level concern in the US and the EU, is seen as an extension of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to violence.

    China has blamed a series of violent attack in Xinjiang and around the country on armed groups, who it said wanted to establish an independent state called East Turkestan, and had carried out several executions in recent months.

    Tohti 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.

    Human Rights Watch, the New York-based monitoring organisation, has called the trial a "travesty of justice" and the exiled World Uyghur Congress said his prosecution would only intensify ethnic conflict.

    "China hopes that by charging Ilham Tohti it can threaten Uighur intellectuals of conscience to accept and spread China's policies of enslavement," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said in an emailed statement.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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