Exceptionally harsh sentence stuns supporters, stokes persecution fears
Ilham Tohti, a university professor, blogger and member of the Muslim Uyghur minority, pauses before a classroom lecture in Beijing in 2010 (AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown)
Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life in prison for separatism on Tuesday, prompting concern that the harsh sentence indicated worsening persecution by Beijing against Muslims in western China.
Although a guilty verdict was never in doubt, Tohti’s lawyer Li Fangping said the judge’s decision to hand down the toughest sentence available was a surprise.
“The sentence is so harsh – beyond imagination – especially given he has two young children who have to be separated from their father,” he said by telephone from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Tohti’s wife Guzelnur broke down in tears in the courtroom as the judge read the sentence.
The court rejected the defense’s argument that Tohti has been a voice for Uyghurs to have a greater say in their own affairs as part of a united China, Li said.
“We have decided to appeal, defiantly,” he added.
Tohti’s supporters took to China’s restricted social media immediately after the sentence was announced to warn that his imprisonment effectively signaled the end of constructive dialogue between Beijing and China’s 12 million Uyghurs.
“Ilham is almost the only voice that has certain influence among Chinese, but now the voice is silenced. Such conduct is forcing the most modest Uyghurs to a desperate stage!” Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer in Beijing, wrote in a blog posting.
A month ago, Uyghur linguist Ayup Abduweli was imprisoned for 18 months for “illegal fundraising”, which reportedly included selling T-shirts and honey to generate funds to build a new Uyghur language school in Xinjiang.
Tohti was detained in mid-January less than two weeks after he accused the Chinese government of acting like “the Mafia” following an incident in which he said government agents deliberately crashed into his car and threatened to kill his family.
The European Union slammed China's "completely unjustified" life sentence against Tohti and called for his immediate and unconditional release, AFP reported Tuesday. "The EU condemns the life sentence for alleged 'separatism' handed out today ... which is completely unjustified," a statement said, accusing Beijing of disregarding "the due process of law."
Tohti’s life sentence comes two days after a series of explosions killed two people in Xinjiang.
At least 325 people have been killed in attacks blamed on Uyghur separatists in western China since April last year.
The Ministry of Public Security announced more specific terrorism guidelines on Sunday that criminalize acts including setting up “illegal” religious schools, the latest new policy designed to combat separatist forces in Xinjiang.
“It could help stop the acts that could later develop into terrorist activities,” Ma Pinyan, a senior terrorism researcher at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, told the state-run English language China Daily on Tuesday.
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