BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced to life in prison the country’s most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people, his lawyer said, the latest sign of Beijing’s determination to suppress dissent.
Economics professor Ilham Tohti stood trial on separatism charges in the western region of Xinjiang last week. His case has provoked an international outcry in the West and among international human rights groups.
“This is totally unacceptable,” his lawyer, Li Fangping, told Reuters by telephone.
“Ilham also said that he is innocent. He will appeal. Based on the wording of the verdict, this case is extremely politicised.”
Tohti, who is ethnic Uighur, is the latest moderate intellectual to be convicted by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration.
The harsh jail term sparked dismay among rights advocates, who have come under increasing pressure by Xi’s government.
Prosecutors in Xinjiang said Tohti had promoted independence for the region on a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net.
Tohti told the court last week he established the website to promote dialogue between Uighur and Han scholars and that he had publicly opposed separatism and violence, according to Li.
Tohti had 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.
The charge of separatism carries a maximum penalty of death in extreme cases.
The United States, the European Union and human rights groups have called for Tohti’s release after a nine-month detention widely seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to violence.
The government blames a series of violent attacks in which hundreds have died on Islamist militants who it says want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkestan.
Activists say the government’s repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest.
Tohti, who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and has “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Robert Birsel