Outspoken scholar from China's Muslim minority community rejects separatism charges at trial

A high-profile Muslim Uighur scholar and government critic denied allegations that he engaged in separatism as he went on trial Wednesday in the far western region of Xinjiang, where authorities say terrorists are seeking an independent state.

Ilham Tohti, a former economics professor in Beijing, is accused of fanning ethnic hatred and advocating the overthrow of Chinese rule in Xinjiang. Ilham Tohti's supporters say his critiques of Chinese policy have always stayed within the law, and one of his lawyers said the scholar denied the allegations in court Wednesday.

"He's against separatism," the lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, said during an afternoon pause in the court proceedings. "He has only talked about some of the legal and cultural issues of Xinjiang. He's against splitting the country."

Ilham Tohti's trial, being held under tight security at the Urumqi People's Intermediate Court, was expected to last two days, but it was not clear when a verdict would be announced. Foreign journalists were not allowed inside, court officials announced no details and the court's telephone number rang unanswered.

Police formed a several-block perimeter around the venue with tape, keeping away journalists, bystanders and several Western diplomats who traveled to Urumqi in attempts to witness the trial. Around noon, police blocked views of the street leading to the courthouse with eight tall panels that had been used to promote the China-Eurasia Expo in Xinjiang earlier this month.

Liu said Illham Tohti appeared in casual clothes and was not wearing handcuffs. Four of his family members — including his wife, Guzulnur — were allowed to attend the proceedings.

"He's never done anything illegal," Guzulnur said during the afternoon break. "He's never talked about separating the country. He's never opposed the government. He's never opposed the people. He's a scholar."

She said her husband's health was not good. Previously, another of Ilham Tohti's lawyers, Li Fanping, had said the scholar was shackled for more than a month while in lockup.

European Union diplomat Raphael Droszewski said the EU has expressed its deep concern over the indictment of Ilham Tohti, noting that he had worked "peacefully within China's laws," and that the bloc has "urged China's government to release him and offer health care."

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Germany-based advocacy group World Uyghur Congress, called the trial a "persecution," and said it would exacerbate tensions between Uighurs and China's leadership.

"China hopes to deter all conscientious Uighur intellectuals through the accusations against Ilham, force them to accept and spread China's enslaving policies," he said.

Xinjiang has experienced rising unrest in recent months blamed on Uighur militants seeking to overthrow Chinese rule.

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Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.