Trial of Uyghur Scholar Ilham Tohti Ends, Verdict To Come 'Soon'

2014-09-18
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Chinese police ask a group of people who were denied entry to the Urumqi Intermediate People's court to leave as the trial of Ilham Tohti begins in Urumqi, Sept. 17, 2014.
Chinese police ask a group of people who were denied entry to the Urumqi Intermediate People's court to leave as the trial of Ilham Tohti begins in Urumqi, Sept. 17, 2014.
AFP

Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang on Thursday wrapped up the separatism trial of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who rejected the charges against him, saying he had done no more than express his views.

The trial of the former Beijing-based Central University for Nationalities economics professor entered its second and final day amid heavy security at the Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi, his lawyer and supporters said.

Rows of riot police, regular officers and plainclothes security police cordoned off the court buildings and surrounded the area, defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said.

Officers were also shooting video of anyone who approached the police lines, at some distance from the courtroom gates, Liu said.

He said the trial started at 10:30 a.m. local time.

"The prosecution finished presenting the results of the investigation in the morning session, including some articles previously written by Tohti and submitted by the defense to the court as evidence," Liu said.

"[These items constituted] evidence that Ilham Tohti is opposed to separatism and the incitement of racial hatred, and against violence," he said.

Another of Tohti's defense lawyers, Li Fangping, said the court had then wrapped up proceedings with defense comments and a closing statement by Tohti in the afternoon.

"In his closing comments, Ilham Tohti repeated his request that he stand trial at the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People's Court," Li said.

"He also said that it's not a crime to speak one's mind, nor to carry out research."

According to court officials, the verdict will be announced "soon," Li said.

Main charge

Li said the main charge focused on by prosecutors was that he allegedly organized a "splittist group" that used his former website UighurOnline as a platform for separatist views.

Among the evidence submitted was a moderators' handbook for one of the forums on UighurOnline.

"This did nothing to uphold the criminal charges of separatism," Li said.

He said prosecutors had also focused on Tohti's company Tulan, which they said he had used to promote separatism through his students.

"But Tulan never advertised for volunteers, for forum moderators or managers, and never issued employment contracts, nor paid any salaries. Everyone who worked there did so voluntarily," Li said.

"They said two of Tohti's students were threatened with the loss of their degree certificates, but there was no solid evidence to back this up," he said.

"The students were probably put under huge pressure to say these things, and said it against their will."

Tohti also said in court that he had always asked that he and his students be tried at the same time.

The fate of seven of Tohti's students detained around the same time as him and allegedly part of the group he is accused of running, remains unknown.

Trial location

Prosecutors told the court that Tohti is being tried in the regional capital Urumqi because the charges against him relate to Xinjiang.

But Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia, who has been a long-time supporter of Tohti, said the trial should have taken place in the Chinese capital.

"Ilham Tohti is a Beijing intellectual whose household registration is here, whose job is here, and whose website, work unit and students are all based here," Hu said.

"This is the most important political case in China this year, and it shouldn't be treated as a local affair," he said.

He said the trial was unlikely to be genuine, however, wherever it was held.

"The prosecutors and the judges are all still the tools of the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party," Hu said. "There is no judicial independence in China."

Sichuan-based rights activist Pu Fei said the authorities were likely seeking to isolate Tohti by holding the trial in Urumqi.

"I think the real reason is that they want to stop people converging [on Beijing] for the Tohti trial," Pu said.

"[If that happened], the impact of this case would be much greater."

Long-time advocate

Courts in China are heavily controlled by the Communist Party, and the country has a near-100 percent conviction rate.

If found guilty, Tohti could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, given that the charges against him don't include the most serious form of "separatism," which can result in the death penalty.

Human rights groups have said that Beijing wanted to punish Tohti, a long-time advocate of Uyghur rights and outspoken critic of Chinese policies in the Xinjiang region, as part of a long-term strategy of suppressing Uyghur voices.

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-terror campaign in May, following a bombing in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 31 people and injured 90.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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