BEIJING — China sentenced prominent Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti to life in prison Tuesday on charges of advocating separatism and inciting ethnic hatred, criticizing the government and voicing support for terrorism.
It was a surprisingly harsh verdict that critics said made a mockery of the country’s legal system and underlined the government’s brutal repression of dissent.
The verdict shocked Tohti’s friends, scholars and activists. Tohti is widely respected abroad as a moderate voice within China’s minority Uighur community; throughout his two-day trial in the city of Urumqi last week, he insisted that he always has opposed separatism and that he had spent his life trying to promote better relations between Uighurs and China’s Han majority.
The White House, in a statement, called for Tohti’s release. “We stress the importance of Chinese authorities differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism,” it said. “We believe that civil society leaders like Ilham Tohti play a vital role in reducing the sources of inter-ethnic tension in China, and should not be persecuted for peacefully expressing their views.”
In New York, speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative, President Obama cited Tohti by name among those who have been imprisoned around the world for their beliefs. “We stand in solidarity with those who are detained,” he said.
But in a 66-page ruling, the judge said Tohti had advocated independence “disguised as high-level autonomy” for the western region of Xinjiang. Tohti also was found guilty of attacking the government’s ethnic, religious and family-planning policies; voicing support for terrorists; and internationalizing the issue by speaking to foreign journalists, according to Li Fangping, one of his attorneys.
All of Tohti’s personal property was confiscated, a ruling sure to make life even more difficult for his wife and two young sons, ages 8 and 5. Tohti, who had listened to the verdict calmly, jumped up and shouted, “I object, I protest,” when the sentence was announced, but was led away swiftly without being allowed to talk to his family, Li said.
“This is so thorough and transparent a miscarriage of justice as to take one’s breath away,” said Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet at Indiana University and a friend of Tohti’s. “By no stretch of the imagination — even the authoritarian imagination — could this be considered a fair trial. The severity of the sentence stands in inverse proportion to the substance of the charges.”
Tohti’s attorneys had complained that they were denied evidence in the run-up to the trial and were prevented from calling any witnesses for the defense. They also had appealed for the trial to be held in Beijing, where Tohti lived and taught, rather than in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
Uighurs in Xinjiang have long complained about repression. In the past year, that resentment has manifested itself in a series of terrorist attacks apparently inspired by a violent interpretation of Islam. On Sunday, authorities said two people died and many were wounded in a series of explosions in central Xinjiang.
Tohti had been sharply critical of government policies toward Xinjiang and had set up a Web site on the region that offered a counter to the official government narrative. But he said the site took pains not to promote separatist ideas.
Citing the judge’s ruling, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said Tohti had “coerced” young Uighur students to work for the Web site. Seven of those students face a separate trial.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said Tohti had acted in accordance with Chinese and international law.
“This has to be seen as a singular moment for human rights” during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure, she said. “This is going to be part of his legacy.”
The European Union called the life sentence “completely unjustified,” and Amnesty International termed it “shameful” and “an affront to justice.”
China’s Foreign Ministry rejected international criticism. “China is a lawful country, and all judicial cases are handled according to the law,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news conference.
Mo Shaoping, a Chinese human rights lawyer, said the verdict would only exacerbate the conflict in Xinjiang. The World Uyghur Congress said the verdict might push more people toward violence.
“The tragedy of Ilham proves it is impossible to find peaceful ways to solve problems in China,” the exile group’s spokesman, Dilxat Raxit, said in a statement.
Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.