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China: Uighur Scholar’s Trial a Travesty of Justice

Ilham Tohti Could Face Sentence of 10 Years to Life

(New York) – The prosecution of China’s most prominent Uighur scholar, the economist Ilham Tohti, is a disturbing example of politicized show trials and intolerance for peaceful criticism, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial only serves to deepen perceptions of discrimination against Uighurs, Human Rights Watch said.

Tohti’s trial on charges of “separatism” is to open on the morning of September 17, 2014, at Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Tohti is an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University of China and the founder of a website focusing on Uighur issues, UighurOnline.

“Tohti has consistently, courageously, and unambiguously advocated peacefully for greater understanding and dialogue between various communities, and with the state,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “If this is Beijing’s definition of ‘separatist’ activities, it’s hard to see tensions in Xinjiang and between the communities decreasing.”

Tohti was taken into police custody in Beijing on January 15. Xinjiang police quickly transferred him to Urumqi, capital of the autonomous region, where he was formally arrested for “separatism” on February 25. He faces between 10 years to life in prison, according to his lawyers.

Tohti’s lawyers believe that seven of Tohti’s students and UighurOnline volunteers have also been detained for “separatism” in relation to his case, but will be tried separately. Their names and circumstances remain unclear but they are held in Urumqi.

According to Tohti’s lawyers, the indictment accuses Tohti of being the head of an “eight-member separatist criminal organization” that incites “ethnic hatred.” The charge is based on articles published on UighurOnline, Tohti’s interviews with foreign media, and his university lectures. The indictment also cited as evidence a survey Tohti re-posted about Uighurs’ attitudes toward independence and a meeting on religion at a Hong Kong university that Tohti suggested some of his students to attend. The authorities alleged that Tohti’s expressions and writings have “subversive intent.” The indictment gives no evidence or precise details about how these articles, interviews, or meetings constitute “separatism.” His lawyers said that none of these writings incited violence or terrorism.

There is also no publicly available evidence that Tohti engaged in any form of speech or behavior that could be construed by any objective standard as inciting violence or unlawful action. Tohti has been outspoken and critical of many Chinese government policies in Xinjiang and toward the Uighur community. But he has always clearly stated in his writings and in the interviews he regularly gave to the foreign media that he opposed Uighur independence or separatism.

Tohti’s case has already been marked by ill-treatment in detention and procedural violations. He was denied access to his lawyers for over five months, from January to June. Under China’s Criminal Procedural Law, suspects charged with terrorism, major corruption, and state security charges can be denied access to counsel, but this provision violates the right to a fair trial. In meetings with lawyers since June, Tohti has described being denied food for 10 days and twice being shackled as punishment for at least a month, contrary to Chinese regulations governing detention centers and the use of restraints.

Tohti’s lawyers have disputed the jurisdiction over the case by the Urumqi court since Tohti has lived and worked in Beijing for years. Political detainees generally have few due process rights in China, but procedural standards are even lower in political trials in Xinjiang involving Uighurs.

Chinese authorities insist that a series of violent attacks in Beijing, Kunming, and Urumqi since late 2013 were “premeditated terrorist attacks” by Uighur “terrorists.” However, because the government denies international and domestic observers, including journalists, the freedom to investigate developments in the region, there is almost no independent information about these incidents that would enable verification of the government’s claims.

Authorities have a responsibility to provide public order. But they have exacerbated tensions in the region with their long-running treatment of peaceful criticism about policies affecting Uighurs as separatism and terrorism, coupled with their unwillingness to meaningfully address Uighurs’ longstanding grievances about ethnic discrimination and religious and cultural repression.

“The long-term solution to Xinjiang’s unrest is not further repression, but greater understanding of Uighurs’ grievances and perspectives,” Richardson said. “If Tohti – a peaceful, articulate critic – is given a harsh sentence, what confidence can any Uighurs have that their very real grievances will ever get a hearing with Chinese authorities?” 

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