China puts Muslim scholar on trial, expanding scope of Uighur crackdown

After a series of attacks on Chinese citizens, apparently by restive Uighurs, Beijing is clamping down on the Muslim minority. Last week it sentenced three Uighurs to death, and today it put a prominent scholar on trial. 

Andy Wong/AP/File
Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Turkic Uighur ethnic minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2013. Tohti was set to go on trial on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014 on separatism charges in the country's far western region of Xinjiang.

The best known advocate for China’s Uighur minority went on trial Wednesday, accused of separatism and facing a lifetime jail sentence.

Last week a Chinese court sentenced three Uighurs to death for their role in a brutal knife attack on a railroad station that killed 31 bystanders. They came from the most radical and violent wing of the Uighur movement.

Ilham Tohti, the university professor who pleaded not guilty today, stands at the other end of the spectrum. He has won widespread international acclaim for his moderate stance and efforts to foster dialogue between the dominant Han ethnic group and the predominantly Muslim Uighurs who populate Xinjiang, a province in the far West. 

Mr. Tohti taught economics at Ethnic Minorities University in Beijing until his arrest in January. Beijing’s decision to try him for separatism is a sign that the authorities – alarmed by growing violence in Xinjiang – will tolerate no dissent, however peaceful, in the restive province.

Over 300 people – half of them policemen – have been killed in the past year in a spate of attacks that Beijing has blamed on separatist terrorists linked to what they say is an international jihadist movement.

Tohti’s prosecution, nine months after his detention, “is a disturbing example of politicized show trials and intolerance for peaceful criticism,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Monday.

"Tohti has consistently, courageously, and unambiguously advocated peacefully for greater understanding between various communities, and with the state,” said Sophie Richardson, the human rights watchdog’s China director.

Diplomats from the United States and other Western nations were denied entry to the court in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, and kept in a location several hundred yards away, according to a spokesman for the European Union. Four members of Tohti’s family were allowed to attend the trial, his lawyers said.

Charges from articles, lectures 

The government’s separatism charges are based on articles Tohti published on his website UighurOnline, on lectures he gave at Ethnic Minorities University, and on interviews he gave to foreign journalists, his lawyers say. Tohti is an ethnic Uighur originally from Xinjiang Province. 

When he was officially charged last month, the European Union called for his immediate release, saying he was guilty of nothing more than having “worked peacefully within China’s laws to promote equal rights for all of China’s citizens.”

Many Uighurs complain that they suffer from ethnic, religious, and economic discrimination at the hands of the Chinese government. The Xinjiang authorities have cracked down recently on expressions of religious faith, discouraging veils and long beards and trying to force government employees to ignore the Ramadan fast.

In a 2011 essay setting out his goals and beliefs, Tohti insisted that “whether rationally or emotionally, I cannot accept any part of the nation being separated.” He added, though, that as ethnic hatred in Xinjiang deepened, “we can solve ethnic problems only by exploring ethnic autonomy and making China a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and attractive country.”

He has said in the past that he would not be surprised if he were jailed. In a 2009 interview with Woeser, a Tibetan activist, he said that “in this country … where you can go to jail for what you say, for running a website, for just speaking the truth, being imprisoned would be an honor for me.”

Tohti’s lawyers said Wednesday they expected the trial to continue into a second day, but that the sentence would not be announced for some time. 

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