China upholds life sentence for Uighur academic

Economist Ilham Tohti received a life sentence in September for 'splittism' and 'inciting hatred.' Many in the academic and diplomatic community say he is a rare prominent voice of moderation.

Andy WongAp/File
Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, seen at his home in Beijing in 2013.

A Chinese court upheld a life sentence for internationally respected Uighur economist Ilham Tohti today, angering human rights groups and many in the academic and diplomatic communities who describe him as a voice of moderation during ongoing ethnic unrest in China’s far west.

In September, Mr. Tohti was charged in an Urumqi court with “splittism” and “inciting hatred” and was given a life sentence. The harshness of the ruling was condemned by American and European governments and leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The decision came amid ongoing violence between the ethnic Uighur and Han communities in China's western Xinjiang Province – and state media appeared to paint Tohti as an abetter of terrorism.

Tohti’s supporters argued vociferously that the opposite is true. In media campaigns and online discussions, they say he is a rare voice for dialogue, is against the separation of Xinjiang from China, and that beyond him, there are few prominent moderate Uighur voices to shape a debate on one of China’s more contested internal issues.

Reuters today reports that China under President Xi Jinping “has convicted and detained hundreds of people in what rights groups say is the most severe assault on human rights in China since the 1989 crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.”

Tohti, a professor in Beijing, has been in and out of detention and house arrest since 2006, when he started an online forum to discuss Uighur life in China. He was arrested last January and sent to Urumqi. This summer, he was put on trial behind closed doors.

The Urumqi high court's notification about the ruling today came with such short notice, reports the Associated Press, that neither of Tohti’s lawyers could attend. AP described Tohti’s sentence as “the most severe in a decade handed down in China for illegal political speech and reflects the ruling Communist party’s unwillingness to tolerate free speech and criticism.” 

Radio Free Asia reported this week that, according to Tohti’s wife, seven of Tohti’s students have been arrested and will face trial.

China’s Uighurs are Muslim and of Turkic extraction. They are the predominant ethnic group in Xinjiang Province. Yet the relative proportion of Uighurs to Han Chinese is in steady decline due to decades of an explicit program by China to modernize and industrialize the region. Language and schooling are in Mandarin and commerce and construction are tied to money flows from Beijing. Uighurs have pushed back, saying they are being culturally decimated in their own region.

Much of the reporting from Xinjiang comes from state-run Chinese media, and foreign reporters traveling there outside official groups are often followed and harassed by state security.

Reuters in its report today said that Tohti would appeal to be allowed to serve his sentence near his family in Beijing and not in Xinjiang: 

Tohti would appeal the ruling to the High Court and the Supreme Court, Tohti's … lawyer, Li Fangping, said. Tohti would ask the court to allow him to serve his sentence in Beijing, where his wife and children live, according to Li. Tohti had been kept in leg irons for close to two months, Li added. Asked about Tohti's case, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing that ‘the Chinese government makes such judicial decisions on the basis of facts and in accordance with the law.

Today's ruling came as President Xi is on a trade and business tour of Australia and New Zealand on the heels of a G20 meeting. He praised New Zealand's Labor party for its progressive views. Last week, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott predicted that later this century, China will become fully democratic.

Meanwhile, taking stock of a crackdown on artistic and scholarly freedom under Xi, the Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun, writing in The New York Times today from the relative safety of Hong Kong, offered a critical view of a recent official forum in China on the arts and writing. He quotes a Xi speech in which the president said, “The arts must serve the people and serve socialism," and went on: 

The recent gathering reminded many people of the Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art in 1942, where Chairman Mao, Mr. Xi’s idol, established the principles of “party literature,” bringing Chinese literature into the stable of Communist propaganda. Since then, all of China’s writers’ organizations have been government entities, all literary prizes have been bestowed by the state, and all published works must endure rigorous censorship. Writers and artists cannot criticize: their role is to chirp about a golden age of China, or suffer the consequences of being banned or arrested.

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