Uighur professor Tohti could face death sentence in China

Beijing police last month detained Ilham Tohti, a professor who has championed the rights of Xinjiang's large Muslim Uighur minority

Uighur professor Tohti could face death sentence in China

World Bulletin/News Desk

A prominent ethnic Uighur economist is unlikely to receive a fair trial and could face the death penalty after being charged with separatism in China's far western Xinjiang region (East turkestan), his lawyer said on Wednesday.

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, used as an excuse by 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 abuses.

"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 said.

Tohti's wife dismissed the charge as "ridiculous".

"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 in Xinjiang, gripped by periodic outbursts of violence often pitting Uighurs against ethnic Han Chinese.

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 specialises in ethnic minority studies, told Reuters in November that state security agents had threatened him for speaking to foreign reporters.

"I have never associated myself with a terrorist organisation 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 into custody.

"I have relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uyghurs."

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.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 26 Şubat 2014, 14:16