China upholds life term for Uyghur writer Ilham Tohti

Academic was convicted for having spread "separatist thoughts" · International NGOs say Beijing denied Tohti fair trial, "harassed" him · World Uyghur Congress believes ruling signals "total intolerance to all, even moderate, forms of dissent"

A Chinese court on Friday upheld the life term in prison to which Uyghur writer and academic Ilham Tohti (left picture) was sentenced on September 23rd. Tohti's lawyers had appealed the ruling, but this was rejected. The writer was convicted on charges of "separatism." The decision unleashed a wave of criticism from international and Uyghur organizations, who believe Tohti did not have a fair trial.

As reported in September by Chinese official news agency Xinhua, Tohti was convicted for having spread "separatist thoughts" on his Uygur Online website. Beijing's Minzu University professor Tohti was also accused of forcing his students to work for that website and to collaborate in writing its articles, which "attacked" Chinese policies and "incited ethnic hatred." Seven of those students are now facing a similar process, as reported by Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping.

"Unfair trial" against "all forms of dissent"

The World Uyghur Congress said Tohti was engaged in research, promotion of Uyghur human rights and improvement of Uyghur-Chinese Han relations through his website. According to the Congress, the ruling "demonstrates its [Chinese government's] total intolerance to all, even moderate, forms of dissent." The organization believes Beijing seeks to frighten Uyghur critics against the Chinese regime.

PEN International meanwhile stressed Tohti had been convicted "after an unfair trial" in which he was denied "adequate legal representation." PEN argues Tohti had been "a target of frequent harassment by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on Uyghur rights."

Human Rights Watch believes the court ruling is part of "the current crackdown on civil society, which is possibly the largest in scale since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989." In this crackdown, HRW says, is also to be found the case of journalist Gao Yu, who has been put on trial on charges of revealing a Chinese Communist Party internal document which calls for more censorship in China. The Chinese government is moving "to tighten control over key pillars of Chinese civil society including the internet, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the media," HRW says.

Minoritised people within its own land

The Uyghur are the indigenous population of East Turkestan, or Xinjiang Uigur. The territory is officially an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, but it is in fact under Beijing's tight control -as is the rest of the country. Starting from the 18th century, Han Chinese people have settled in the area. The process has greatly intensified during Communist rule. According to the 2000 census, Uyghurs were 44% of the total East Turkestan population, with Han Chinese at 40%. Han Chinese are now the majority in several East Turkestan regions, including the capital city Ürümqi, where only 12% of the inhabitants are Uyghur.

East Turkestan is strategically important to China, since it gives the Chinese access to Central Asia. The Chinese government has for decades suppressed Uyghur nationalism, blaming it for being terrorist and separatist.