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Chinese court upholds unjust life sentence against Uyghur scholar, trial marked by irregularities

UPDATE from Human Rights Watch: China wants you to forget Ilham Tohti, 20 September 2016.

In this 4 February 2013 file photo, Ilham Tohti speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, China
In this 4 February 2013 file photo, Ilham Tohti speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, China

AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

This statement was originally published on on 21 November 2014.

The Xinjiang High People's Court upheld a life sentence for "separatism" against China's most prominent Uighur scholar in proceedings that grossly violated his basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Ilham Tohti, an economics professor in Beijing, was convicted on September 17, 2014 after what amounted to a show trial for being a "secret separatist." The Xinjiang High People's Court did not hear Tohti's appeal in public, ignored his lengthy submission, and took the highly unusual step of announcing its ruling at a sentencing session inside the detention center where Tohti is being held. Tohti's lawyer received insufficient notice to attend the ruling, which only two of Tohti's relatives were allowed to attend.

"Sentencing Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment is an injustice of the highest order," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "The court's verdict makes clear that Tohti did not incite violence or other unlawful action, and that he sought ways to reduce ethnic tension in Xinjiang. By upholding the life sentence, the High People's Court merely added insult to injury."

Reflecting the highly politicized proceedings that marked Tohti's case since his arrest in January, the Xinjiang High People's Court effectively rejected Tohti's request for an appeal, which would have examined whether his criticism of state policies in Xinjiang genuinely constituted "separatism." The court did not respond to Tohti's written appeal, in which he detailed how he had always operated within the limits of his role as an academic and within his rights under China's Constitution. The High People's Court limited its ruling to affirming that the sentence was in line with what the law mandated for separatist "ringleaders."

Tohti, who is originally from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), was taken into police custody in Beijing on January 15, 2014. The Xinjiang police quickly transferred Tohti to Urumqi, the capital of the XUAR. On January 25, the Urumqi Public Security Bureau issued an online statement accusing Tohti of having "engaged in separatist activities" and having "fanned ethnic hatred."

The Urumqi Intermediate People's Court convicted Tohti in September for inciting and coercing students into separatist activities, trying to "internationalize" the Xinjiang issue, and giving interviews to foreign media. Several former students of Tohti are expected to be tried in the coming weeks, according to the mother of one defendant. Human Rights Watch remains gravely concerned about their treatment in detention and their ability to receive a fair trial meeting international standards.

"If the Chinese government really wants to improve the situation in Xinjiang, imprisoning for life those best placed to do so is precisely the wrong strategy," Richardson said.

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