Ilham Tohti: Why Chinese court gave life sentence to Muslim Uighur scholar

Ilham Tohti: A moderate advocate for China’s ethnic Uighur population was sentenced Tuesday, underscoring the degree to which Beijing is willing to crackdown on the group after multiple attacks this year.

CCTV via Reuter TV/Reuters
Uighur academic Ilham Tohti sits during his trial on separatism charges in Urumqi, Xinjiang region, in this still image taken from video shot on September 17-18, 2014. China's trial of the Uighur scholar on separatism charges completed its two days of evidence on Thursday. Prosecutors in China's western Xinjiang region said economics professor Tohti, an advocate for the rights of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group, had promoted independence for the region on a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net. Tohti 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, his laywer Li Fangping said.

China’s leading advocate for the rights of ethnic Uighurs was jailed for life Tuesday, a sentence that signals the government’s resolve to silence dissent amid a surge in ethnic violence.

Ilham Tohti, who pleaded not guilty last Wednesday to separatism charges, is a former university professor who is acclaimed internationally for his attempt to facilitate dialogue between China's Han majority and minority Muslim Uighurs in the far western Xinjiang Province.

A court in Urumqi, in Xinjiang, handed down the sentence after convicting Mr. Tohti in a two-day trial, his lawyer, Li Fangping, said by telephone from outside the courthouse, the Associated Press reports. It is the most severe penalty in a decade for anyone in China convicted of illegal political speech. 

The defendant remained calm during the session but shouted “I don't accept this!” when the sentence was read, according to the AP. Tohti taught economics at Ethnic Minorities University in Beijing until his arrest in January.

The sentencing points to Beijing's willingness to crackdown on Uighurs of all types after a series of high-profile attacks this year were traced by authorities to extremists from Xinjiang. Beijing accuses Uighur separatists of orchestrating an attack on a train station in western China that killed 33 in April, and of plowing an SUV through a crowd of tourists in Tiananmen Square last October.

Academics within China and abroad fear the sentencing will chill ethnic dialogue.

"Ilham Tohti's situation gives scholars like me who ... work on the issue great concern about our safety and academic freedom," a scholar told the Associated Press after Tuesday's sentencing, requesting anonymity because of fear of punishment from authorities.

The sentencing sends "a very disturbing message," said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the City University of Hong Kong. "Beijing's message is that they do not look to dialogue with the Uighurs but suppression." 

Peter Ford, The Christian Science Monitor's Beijing bureau chief, reported recently that China blames attacks that have killed more than 300 people in the past year – half of them policemen – on what it calls separatist terrorists from Xinjiang. 

Many Uighurs say that the government's policies in Xinjiang have created a fertile soil for radicalization. In a briefing, Mr. Ford explains what's driving Uighur grievances:

Uighurs complain that the influx of Han settlers over the past 50 years has made them strangers in their own land, where they now make up less than half the population. Most of the good jobs created by economic growth go to Han, not to Uighurs who mainly do menial tasks. Uighurs fear that their culture is being stifled and their Muslim religious practice curtailed as the Chinese government fights to stamp out separatism; young men under age 18 are banned from mosques, for example, and essential school classes are taught in Mandarin, not Uighur. Economic development is all very well, a Uighur trader once told me, but it comes at a price: "They give us bread," he said, "but they take away our hearts."

This summer, Xinjiang authorities cracked down on expressions of religious faith, discouraging veils and long beards, and trying to force government employees to ignore the Ramadan fast, the Monitor reported.

'Incited ethnic hatred' 

Chinese state press agency Xinhua said the court ruling claimed Tohti coerced students to work for his website, UighurOnline, and built a criminal syndicate.

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

Tohti's writings were moderate rather than extreme, the Monitor reports:

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,” adding, “we can solve ethnic problems only by exploring ethnic autonomy and making China a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and attractive country."

Foreign governments and international rights groups criticized China’s treatment of Tohti and Western diplomats who tried to attend the trial were turned away at the courthouse, according to the New York Times. Foreign journalists were barred from attendance.

The Economist reported that the sentence was harsher than many had expected:

Though few outside China had heard of Mr. Tohti, and even fewer would have viewed Mr. Tohti as much of a threat to Communist Party rule, his sentencing will almost certainly make him an enduring international symbol for human rights activists."

Tohti has said in the past that he would not be surprised if he were jailed, the Monitor reports. In a 2009 interview 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.”

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