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Uyghur Scholar Goes On Trial In China

  • RFE/RL

Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti

A scholar from China's Uyghur minority who often criticized the country's ethnic policies has pleaded not guilty at his trial on separatism charges.

Ilham Tohti, a former economics professor in Beijing, entered his plea at the trial that began in the provincial capital Urumqi on September 17.

Tohti is accused of activities aimed at overthrowing Chinese rule in the restive Xinjiang region, which is home to some 8 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs.

The trial is expected to last two days, but it is unclear when a verdict will be announced.

Foreign journalists were not allowed inside the courthouse and court officials announced no details at the end of the business day.

Police marked a several-block perimeter around the venue with tape, keeping away journalists, bystanders, and several Western diplomats who traveled to Urumqi in an attempt to observe the trial.

Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping, said during a trial break that his client had never called for separatism and was against any breakup of China.

At least four of Tohti's relatives -- including his wife, Guzel Nur -- were allowed to attend the proceedings.

"He's never done anything illegal," Nur said during the afternoon break. "He's never talked about separating the country. He's never opposed the government. He's never opposed the people. He's a scholar."

European Union diplomat Raphael Droszewski said the EU had expressed its deep concern over the indictment of Tohti and that the bloc had "urged China's government to release him and offer health care," noting that he had worked "peacefully within China's laws."

Predicted Chinese Overreaction

Tohti has long been a critic of what he has called the systematic exclusion of Uyghurs from the economic benefits brought to Xinjiang by incoming members of China's Han majority, and has sought to prevent the Turkic Uyghur language and culture from being marginalized.

He was arrested in Beijing earlier this year amid violence in Xinjiang linked to separatist militants, and the authorities have blamed him for fomenting some of the unrest.

More than 300 people have been killed over the past 18 months, nearly half of them suspects shot dead by police in a "strike-hard" campaign launched by the government to fight what it calls terrorist cells in the region.

Tohti had in the past warned that Chinese authorities might overdo their antiterrorism measures to conceal the incompetence of local governments in Xinjiang.

Last October, when three Uyghurs killed six people, including themselves, in a fiery car crash at central Beijing's Tiananmen Gate, Tohti urged the authorities to make public their evidence corroborating findings that it was a terrorist attack, and he voiced concerns that a crackdown on Uyghurs would become overly harsh.

The trial will continue on September 18.

With reporting by scmp.com, AFP, and AP
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