Updated at 1:30 p.m. EST on 2014-11-19
A court in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang will rule on Friday on an appeal by jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti against his life sentence for "separatism" behind closed doors at the detention center where he is being held, his lawyer said on Wednesday.
The former professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing was sentenced to life in prison, along with deprivation of political rights and confiscation of all his assets, following his conviction on a charge of "separatism" by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang on Sept. 23.
Tohti, 44, immediately voiced protest when the verdict and sentence was announced in spite of arguments from his defense team that much of the evidence against him was dubious.
The appeal has once more focused on those arguments, but lawyers have been unsuccessful in challenging the decision to try Tohti in Xinjiang's regional capital, instead of his home city of Beijing.
Defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told RFA on Wednesday he received notification from the Urumqi court late the previous evening that none of Tohti's family or friends would be permitted to attend the meeting in the police-run Urumqi No. 1 Detention Center.
"We have submitted an objection to the fact that the appeal process wasn't heard in open court," Liu said.
"I spoke to the judge by phone today, and the judge said that the detention center has strict controls in place, so other people can't be allowed inside," he said.
"His family have been calling to ask if they can attend."
Breach of rules
Liu said the authorities are in breach of the Chinese legal procedural code, in the case of Tohti's appeal.
"The relevant rules state that in cases where the case isn't heard in open court, there must be no disagreement over the material facts of the case," he said.
"But Ilham Tohti says that the facts of the case aren't established, and that this appeal qualifies for a hearing in open court."
Tohti’s wife Guzelnur meanwhile expressed disappointment that no new hearing would be held, and that a ruling on her husband’s appeal would simply be read out in jail.
“It scares me to think that the verdict will be read without his lawyers present,” she said.
Authorities have not agreed even to remove Tohti’s shackles in jail, “a denial of the basic rights of all prisoners,” she said.
“I had really hoped that this kind of lawlessness would not have happened in a country that calls itself a country ruled by law.”
“I still believe my husband is innocent, as he had only advocated for the legal rights of the Uyghur people,” Guzelnur said.
“I don’t know what fate awaits my family now,” she said.
Defense attorney Li Fangping said the judge ruling on Tohti’s appeal had told him that the absence of Tohti’s lawyers at the verdict’s reading on Friday would “make no difference” to the outcome, as the government lawyer responsible for overseeing the case would be present.
“It is rare that a ruling on an appeal case would be made at a detention center, though courts will choose this method when they want to expedite a case.”
“Choosing this method makes it difficult for evidence to be presented, and for the first verdict to be overturned,” he said.
Defense lawyer Liu said that he expects no reduction of Tohti’s sentence from the appeal process, let alone a reversal of the original verdict.
"There isn't much hope of that," he said. "I hadn't expected that the sentence in the court of first instance would be so heavy."
"Tohti doesn't believe that there is much law in this case; he says it's a political decision," Liu added. "Personally, I think that there is very little likelihood of a reduction of the sentence."
He said Tohti has vowed to take the appeal further if the Urumqi High People's Court upholds the original conviction and sentence.
"He said he would appeal again, because when the sentence becomes effective, he will be transferred to a prison in a few months' time, and it might be difficult to mount an appeal from there," Liu said.
"Of course, in criminal cases, the family also has the right to appeal sentences," he added.
Tohti's conviction sparked a wave of condemnation in China and from the international community, with human rights activists saying he never received the benefit of a fair trial, and that he should never have been tried in the first place for exercising his constitutional right to free expression.
The Xinjiang region, which is home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, has seen an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012, and which China has blamed on terrorists and Islamist insurgents seeking to establish an independent state.
But rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Chinese president Xi Jinping announced a harsh, one-year anti-terrorism campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.
Exile Uyghur groups have repeatedly said the root causes of recent violence in Xinjiang lie with China's treatment of peaceful Uyghur dissidents.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Mihray Abdilim for the Uyghur Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.