A court in Xinjiang today sentenced the prominent Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti to a life in prison after he was found guilty of separatism.
His punishment is the harshest that Chinese officials have imposed on a political dissident in recent history, NY Times says, and Amnesty International has called out the verdict as being “deplorable” and an “affront to justice”.
Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court convicted Ilham after a two-day trial that ended last Wednesday. He was brought to Xinjiang after being apprehended by police last January in Beijing, where he lived with his family and taught economics at Minzu University.
The 44-year-old academic was charged with organizing and leading a separatist group, his lawyer told the Times via phone interview. Prosecutors at the trial also claimed that Ilham, an ethnic Uyghur, was promoting independence on his website, Uyghur Online.
As evidence, officials presented in court material representing Mr. Tohti’s viewpoints on Uighur identity and China’s ethnic policies, much of it drawn from his classroom teachings and the website he ran from late 2005 to 2008, Uighur Online. Officials argued that Mr. Tohti’s separatist group included seven of his students, who have also been detained and will almost certainly be tried, Mr. Li said.
Among prosecutors’ arguments was that Mr. Tohti had “internationalized” the Uighur issue by giving interviews to foreign reporters and had translated foreign articles and essays about Xinjiang to be posted on Uighur Online.
Chinese authorities had previously frozen Ilham’s bank account holding the family’s life savings, which his lawyer said sat around 80,000 yuan, and further ordered the seizure of all his assets in court today.
His wife, Guzaili Nu’er, burst into tears upon hearing the verdict. She currently lives in Beijing with their two sons, aged five and eight.
As Ilham was pulled away from the courtroom by officers, he was heard yelling: “It’s not just! It’s not just!”
The EU, US and United Nations have all called for the release of Ilham, who’s seen as a moderate voice outside of China. Online, the outcry against his unusually harsh verdict is deafening.
Life sentence for Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti. Shocked by appearance: unrecognsble to bubbly man I knew & last met '13 pic.twitter.com/XcuoTCbyu9
— Ananth Krishnan (@ananthkrishnan) September 23, 2014
“Xinjiang 961 FM Radio”seems surprised by Ilham Tohti's harsh verdict. pic.twitter.com/xxDUVuMfLp
— edde (@Edourdoo) September 23, 2014
Surprising no. of Weibo users see irony between what happened to Ilham Tohti and the Scots, who both supposedly tried to "split the country"
— Valentina Luo (@valentinaluo) September 23, 2014
Important to read this on a day of a very harsh sentence – They Don't Want Moderate Uighurs' by Ian Johnson http://t.co/jKeh1Hn6xj
— David Schlesinger (@daschles) September 23, 2014
RT @AndrewJacobsNYT: Shocking. Moderate Uighur academic Ilham Tohti given life in prison for being a "closeted" separatist.
— Philip P. Pan (@panphil) September 23, 2014
Tohti’s daughter on the phone from the US: "He is 100% not guilty. My father has never harmed anyone in his entire life” #IlhamTohti
— Hélène Franchineau (@Helene_FR) September 23, 2014
Court sentencing Ilham Tohti read out entire 66-page verdict, incl all statements from his students and participants in Urumqi riots. Why?
— malcolmmoore (@MalcolmMoore) September 23, 2014
heart broken, my friend, Uighur academic Ilham Tohti received life sentence today http://t.co/Lp9jNx98RT
— zengjinyan (@zengjinyan) September 23, 2014
China has not learned that when you jail the moderates, the peace-makers, you end up with extremists. Ilham Tohti does not belong in jail.
— Emily Rauhala (@emilyrauhala) September 23, 2014
For more background on the case, read the CHRD report here.