A Chinese court handed down a lifetime prison sentence to a vocal government critic on Tuesday on charges of promoting separatism and terrorism within the country.
Ilham Tohti, 44, is well-known in China’s Xinjiang province for criticizing the government’s position of ignoring matters important to the minority Uighurs people. The Uighurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking group who live in the western part of the country. Vocal members of the Uighur community have often complained that the central government have restricted their ability to openly practice their cultural and religious beliefs and that government policy have denied them economic opportunities (the government denies any such restriction).
Tohti, a professor of economics, was accused of running a website that advocated Uighur separatism from mainland China. Government broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported that those who worked for the website constituted a “criminal syndicate,” with Tohti as their leader.
“Tohti organized this group to write, edit, translate and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang’s separation from China,” a report from CCTV said. “Through online instigation, Tohti encouraged his fellow Uighurs to use violence. He also colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international.”
External media reports paint Tohti as a moderate critic who came under the hammer of China’s stringent censorship laws. According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), Tohti was routinely placed under house arrest and barred from leaving the country. His lawyer said that in the week leading up to the trial, he had been shackled in a cell and deprived of food.
The two-day trial was closed to members of the global press, though footage from inside the courtroom was redistributed throughout the world after it was broadcast on CCTV.
Tohti was not allowed to speak as his sentence was read in court on Tuesday. Lawyer Li Fangping called the sentence “totally unacceptable” and said his client would appeal.
Advocacy groups have called the trial a highly politicized sham. Amnesty International reacted to the verdict on Tuesday, calling the sentence “deplorable.” Human Rights Watch said the lifetime prison sentence was “very shocking, much harsher than anybody expected.” The United States and members of the European Union have also criticized the trial as stifling to free speech and expression in China.
In addition to the lifetime prison sentence, Tohti’s personal property was seized and his political privileges revoked. But the jail sentence and confiscation of property seem to not dissuade Tohti — as he was leaving the court on Tuesday, he criticized the sentence, saying, “It’s not just.”
“He told us that no matter the verdict, he will not be angry nor seek revenge,” Li told the BBC. “No matter whether he is in jail or if he is freed in the future, he will still advocate for dialogue between Uighurs and Han Chinese.”
Uighur separatists were labeled a terrorist group by the Chinese government in 2002. Separatist activity in the country carries a possible death sentence.