Beijing police last month detained Ilham Tohti, a professor who
has championed the rights of Xinjiang's large Muslim Uighur
minority. Unrest in Xinjiang has killed more than 100 people in the
past year, prompting authorities to toughen their stance.
Tohti was taken after his detention to Xinjiang's regional capital
Urumqi and on Tuesday his wife was notified of the charges. His case
has draw concern from the United States and Europe over human rights
"To a degree, his name has already been blackened in the court of
public opinion," Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping said by telephone from
Urumqi, where he said he has not been allowed to see his client
after a month and a half in detention.
"We'll have to wait and see if his trial will be fair. We are not
feeling very optimistic."
If found guilty, Li said, Tohti was most likely to receive a
sentence between 10 years and life in prison, but China's criminal
code also provides for the death sentence for separatism. With
strategic border regions like Xinjiang and Tibet populated with
ethnic minorities, separatism is considered a serious crime.
"It includes the possibility (of a death sentence). If there are no
other violent circumstances, it should be 10 years to life," Li
Tohti's wife, Guzailai Nu'er, has dismissed the charge as
"He's never done anything like the crime of separatism they accuse
him of," she told Reuters Television. "And I'm under so much
pressure ... I'm not particularly free leaving my own home -
wherever I go (police) are always trailing me."
Li said he believed his client was "an extremely open and
transparent person. All that he has done is in his interviews, in
class lectures and in his online content."
The charge is the latest sign of the government's hardening stance
on dissent in Xinjiang, gripped by periodic outbursts of violence
often pitting Uighurs against ethnic Han Chinese.
Many Uighurs chafe at restrictions on their culture and religion,
although the government says it grants them broad freedoms. China
blames some of the violence on Islamists who want to establish an
independent state called East Turkestan.
But rights groups and exiles say China exaggerates the threat to
justify its firm grip on energy-rich Xinjiang, which borders
ex-Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
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CHALLENGING THE GOVERNMENT'S VERSION
Advocates for Tohti say he has challenged the government's version
of several incidents involving Uighurs. That includes what China
says was its first major suicide attack, in Beijing's Tiananmen
Square in October, involving militants from Xinjiang, by pointing
out inconsistencies in the official accounts.
"China's accusation of so-called separatism is a political excuse to
suppress Uighurs who express differing opinions," Dilxat Raxit, a
spokesman for the main Uighur exile group, the World Uyghur
Congress, said in an emailed statement.
Tohti, who teaches at Beijing's Minzu University which specializes
in ethnic minority studies, told Reuters in November that state
security agents had threatened him for speaking to foreign
"I have never associated myself with a terrorist organization or a
foreign-based group," Tohti told Radio Free Asia's Uyghur Service
last year in a statement he asked to have released if he was taken
"I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the
human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the
The foreign ministry, the only government department which regularly
answers questions from the foreign media, declined to comment
directly on the case.
"I believe that China is a country with rule of law and judicial
authorities will try the case in a fair and legal way," spokeswoman
Hua Chunying told a press briefing on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Joseph Campbell; Editing
by Ron Popeski)
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