China's sentencing of seven students of Uyghur dissident and former professor Ilham Tohti on separatism charges is "unacceptable," an exile group said after the students were handed jail terms of between three and eight years.
The students were identified as Mutellip Imin, Atikem Rozi, Perhat Halmurat, Abduqeyum Ablimit, Shohret Nijat, Akbar Imin, and Luo Yuwei, with Luo the only member of the group not belonging to the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority.
"They were sentenced to jail terms of three to eight years," Tohti's defense lawyer Li Fangping confirmed to RFA after the sentences were passed following a one-day trial on Nov. 25 at the Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi.
Tohti, a 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, by the same court on Sept. 23.
He has repeatedly denied the charge and says the cases against him and his students are politically motivated. But the Urumqi High People's Court rejected Tohti's appeal against his sentence last month.
The court found that the students' "separatist" activities alongside Tohti amounted in themselves to separatism, Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said via Twitter.
"The judgment and sentencing of these ... students is unacceptable," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), told RFA.
"They were sacrificed to the Ilham Tohti case, because then the authorities could use them as evidence for Ilham Tohti's [allegedly] criminal activities," Raxit said.
The students' involvement in allegedly separatist activities was largely based on their work for Tohti's website, Uighur Online, or www.uighurbiz.net, official media reported.
According to prosecutors in Tohti's own trial, he had "bewitched and coerced young ethnic minority students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate."
Tohti, 45, had organized this group to write, edit, translate, and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang's separation from China, the judgment said.
The website included articles critical of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's policies targeting Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including systematic religious controls, the enforcement of Chinese-language education in the schools, and lack of economic opportunity.
These criticisms were used by prosecutors in Tohti's case as evidence that he had incited people to separatism and undermined "national unity," lawyers said at the time.
But Tohti's defense statement said he had "relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request" human rights and legal rights for Uyghurs.
Prosecutors also made use of statements by his students in Tohti's trial, which he rejected as having been drawn from them under extreme duress.
Attacks on freedom
New York-based Hu Ping, editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, agreed that the seven students were integral to the prosecution case against Tohti himself.
"Ilham Tohti was arrested on the basis, among other things, of his relationship with his students and the things he said in class," Hu said.
He said Tohti had never called for independence for Xinjiang either verbally or in his articles.
"The heavy sentence handed to Ilham Tohti shows that the authorities are stepping up the pressure on ideological freedom within universities," Hu said.
"This isn't just about the oppression of Uyghur intellectuals."
A China-based online writer who asked to be identified only as Liu said Tohti's view of the history of Xinjiang and the Uyghur people had long been at odds with the official Communist Party line.
But he added: "Tohti is a very moderate Uyghur intellectual, and his views on Xinjiang issues are based on the fact that the clauses in the constitution relating to ethnic minorities haven't been implemented there."
"China may be researching ethnic minority policy at the moment, but it continues to uphold the old policies of economic appeasement and political suppression," Liu said.
"That's why Tohti had to get the sentence he did."
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.