BEIJING – A court Friday upheld the separatism conviction and life sentence for a noted scholar from China's Muslim Uighur minority who frequently criticized the government while advocating ethnic pride and greater economic opportunity.
Ilham Tohti was accused of fomenting unrest in the far western region of Xinjiang during a closed-door trial in September in the regional capital of Urumqi. His supporters have portrayed him as a moderate intent on mediating conflicts between Xinjiang's native Uighurs and China's ethnic Han majority.
The Xinjiang High Court rejected the scholar's appeal against the conviction, and the verdict was delivered Friday at a hearing held inside the Urumqi detention center, in violation of normal judicial procedure, his two lawyers said. The hearing was set at short notice on a date in which both lawyers were unable to attend, Liu Xiayuan and Li Fangping said.
"The verdict must be given publicly and people should be allowed to attend the hearing," Liu said in a telephone interview. "I don't agree with their style of doing things."
At Ilham Tohti's closed-door trial in September, prosecutors presented evidence including a video of one of his lectures at a Beijing university in which he said Xinjiang belonged to Uighurs not Hans, state media reported at the time. They also said the scholar publicized a fake poll showing that 12 percent of Uighurs favored separating from China, the reports said.
Ilham Tohti has long been a critic of what he calls the systematic exclusion of Uighurs from the economic benefits brought to Xinjiang by Han migrants, and has sought to prevent the Turkic Uighur language and culture from being marginalized.
His harsh sentence was the most severe in a decade handed down in China for illegal political speech and reflects the ruling Communist Party's unwillingness to tolerate free speech and criticism. The verdict had drawn condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union.
"The upholding of (Ilham) Tohti's life sentence constitutes a gross travesty of justice and a dark day for Chinese letters," said Dominic Moran of the New York-based free speech and literature advocacy group PEN American Center.