Economics professor Ilham Tohti, 44, stood trial for two days last
week on separatism charges in the western region of Xinjiang. His
case has provoked an outcry in the West and among international
human rights groups.
"I'm innocent, I protest," Tohti shouted to the court before the
judge ordered police officers to drag him out of the courthouse,
according to Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping.
Tohti's wife, Guzaili Nu'er, who saw Tohti for the first time in
eight months during last week's trial, bawled in the courthouse when
the verdict was announced, Li said.
Tohti, who is an ethnic Uighur, is the latest moderate intellectual
to be convicted by Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration.
The court also ordered the confiscation of all of his personal
"This is totally unacceptable," Li said. "He will appeal. Based on
the wording of the verdict, this case is extremely politicised."
The sentence was met with dismay among the international community
and rights advocates, who have come under increasing pressure from
"It's very shocking, much harsher than anybody expected," said Maya
Wang of the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. "It's
quite unprecedented for someone who is so prominent."
In a statement, the European Union condemned the sentence, calling
it "completely unjustified".
In China, Tohti is regarded as an outspoken intellectual who has
repeatedly criticised the government for not giving Xinjiang and its
Uighurs more autonomy.
Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking people. Many resent restrictions on
their culture and religion, and complain they are denied economic
opportunities amid an influx of majority Han Chinese into Xinjiang.
The government has blamed a series of violent attacks in which
hundreds of people have been killed on Islamist militants who it
says want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East
The government says Uighurs are granted wide religious, cultural and
Tohti, who taught at Beijing's Minzu University, which specialises
in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any
terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and "relied only on
pen and paper to diplomatically request" human rights and legal
rights for Uighurs.
His friends say he has never advocated independence for Xinjiang and
he is proud to be Chinese.
[to top of second column]
"The tragedy of Ilham shows that solving a problem through peaceful
means is impossible in China," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the
exiled World Uyghur Congress, said in an e-mailed statement.
Prosecutors in Xinjiang said Tohti had promoted independence for the
region on a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net. State news
agency Xinhua said that Tohti had "bewitched and coerced young
ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal
"He also colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping
incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues
international," Xinhua said.
Tohti told the court last week he established the website to promote
dialogue between scholars and that he had publicly opposed
separatism and violence, Li said.
Tohti had rejected the prosecution's evidence and said statements
against him by student volunteers who had worked on the website were
made under pressure from authorities.
"It signifies that China is taking a hardline stance towards any
Uighur moderates trying to put forward solutions that differ from
the party's approach," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty
International, said of the sentence.
The charge of separatism carries a maximum penalty of death in
The United States, the European Union and human rights groups have
called for Tohti's release after an eight-month detention widely
seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang.
"We are always opposed to other countries interfering with our
judicial independence," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua
Chunying said at a daily news briefing, when asked about
international criticism of Tohti's case.
(Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Robert Birsel
and Jeremy Laurence)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.