BEIJING — A prominent Uighur scholar was formally charged with separatism Wednesday and will face trial in Xinjiang, even as conflicting accounts of violence in the restive Chinese region have emerged from Uighurs and the government.
The charges against Ilham Tohti were announced on the microblogging account of the procuratorate’s office in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. And it comes in the face of criticism and protest by international human rights groups and lobbying by Western diplomats.
Tohti, an economics professor at a Beijing university, is known for speaking out for the rights of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. He was taken from his Beijing home in January by authorities, who accused him of secession.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf expressed concern about the indictment of Tohti and called on China to release him and his students “and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including freedom of expression.”
The formal charge of separatism is worrisome because it can result in a death sentence, said Sophie Richardson of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The announcement came two days after reports of a clash between Uighurs and authorities in the Xinjiang region that killed or wounded dozens.
The exact death toll and circumstances of the violence have been difficult to independently determine.
Uighur groups say authorities have cut off Internet service and other communications in the area near the city of Kashgar. The only official report has come from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Xinhua’s account, which has been questioned by overseas Uighur groups, said police opened fire on dozens of people armed with knives and axes who attacked a police station and government offices in the Elixku township.
The Washington-based Uyghur American Association cited accounts from unnamed local Uighurs contradicting the government’s version of events. In a statement, the organization said that the Uighurs involved were protesting a crackdown by authorities during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The association said more than 20 Uighurs were killed and more than 70 arrested.
The heightened tensions are a result of a spate of attacks in recent months across China that authorities attribute to Muslim extremists.
For years, many Uighurs and other smaller Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have agitated against China’s authoritarian government. Their protests are a reaction, Uighur groups say, to oppressive official policies, religious restrictions and widespread discrimination.
The government has long denied any oppression of Uighurs or any other ethnic minority and has presented its strict security efforts as part of an increasingly intense counterterrorism response to violent extremists espousing separatism.