Condemnation of Uighur scholar’s jail sentence

An unusually harsh life sentence was imposed on soft-spoken Uighur economics professor Ilham Tohti last week for ‘separatism’, or attempting to split the Uighur region of Xinjiang from the rest of China. The verdict took human rights groups by surprise, leading to strong condemnation of the sentence and treatment meted out to Tohti.

Seperatism is a serious crime in China. In the past sentences have been between seven and 15 years, so a life sentence is harsh even by China’s standards.

Tohti was considered a moderate Uighur voice within China. The sentence and stripping of all his assets – which will also affect his family – is a clear signal that the government intends to silence dissident voices as the Xinjiang region is beset by violence, rights groups said.

“This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

At least seven of Tohti’s former students were arrested in January along with the professor as part of a crackdown on the restive Xinjiang region.

The Uighur students also face separatism charges. “It is unclear when their trials will take place or whether they have been allowed legal representation,” Nee said.

The trial and ruling

During the two-day trial that started on 17 September the court in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang region, said Tohti had spread “lessons containing separatist thoughts” through his website, which he started in 2006 and the authorities shut down in 2008.

The region is home to a significant turkic-speaking Muslim minority.

The official news agency Xinhua said the court ruling claimed Tohti “bewitched and coerced” ethnic minority students to write, edit, translate and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang’s separation from China, and to work for his website. Xinhua described it as building a “criminal syndicate”.

The court ruling said articles on the website incited ethnic hatred and encouraged people to violence in addition to attacking China’s ethnic, religious, economic and family planning policies.

The court said Tohti also “internationalised” Xinjiang issues by conducting interviews with foreign media and attacking China’s policies in Xinjiang.

Tohti has strongly denied the charges of separatism and his lawyer Li Fangping said last Tuesday he would appeal against the conviction. “Based on the wording of the verdict, I think that this is extremely politicised,” Li said.


The European Union, United States and other governments and rights groups were swift to condemn the sentence. The EU said in a statement issued within hours of the sentencing that Beijing had not respected the due process of the law.

A statement from the White House in Washington said Tohti was “a respected professor who has long championed efforts to bridge differences between Uighurs and Han Chinese.

“We believe that civil society leaders like Ilham Tohti play a vital role in reducing the sources of inter-ethnic tension in China, and should not be persecuted for peacefully expressing their views,” the statement said.

It called on the Chinese authorities to release Tohti and his students who remain in detention, “and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments and its own constitution. We stress the importance of Chinese authorities differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism.”

The exile group the World Uighur Congress condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the ruling by the Urumqi People’s Intermediate court “after only a two-day trial” and also called for Tohti’s immediate release.

“The incredible charges levelled against Mr Tohti have never been supported by facts, and the so-called evidence against him has been retained by Chinese officials,” the exile group said, adding: “The entire ordeal involving Mr Tohti has been marred by irregularities and the outright perversion of any fair legal process.”

The group pointed out that Tohti had been a professor at Minzu University of China, formerly known as the Central University for Nationalities, in Beijing, where he specialised in research focused on Uighur-Han Relations, China’s ethnic policies and Xinjiang.

“Tohti has been recognised by the international community for his staunch opposition to violence, and continued support for Uighur-Han dialogue, understanding and peace,” the group said.

This case sends strong signals to the rest of the Uighur population, the group added. “After Tohti’s sentencing, not only will Uighurs be even more hesitant to criticise or stand up against the regime, but will self-servingly provide the state with a yardstick by which all other cases will be judged.

“It has been clear that such a chilling effect has been the aim of the state throughout the trial.”

Amnesty International said Tohti’s sentencing came after a wave of violent attacks and suppression of protests in Xinjiang.

One of the most violent incidents occurred on 28 July, with state media reporting 37 civilians killed when a ‘knife wielding mob’ stormed government offices in the town of Shache. Security forces are reported to have shot dead 59 attackers during the incident.

Uighur groups dispute this account, saying as many as 2,000 Uighurs were killed when police opened fire on hundreds of people protesting against severe restrictions placed on Muslims during Ramadan.