Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang put on trial seven former students of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti on “separatism' charges on Tuesday, according to a top human rights lawyer.
"The trial of the seven students in the Ilham Tohti case has just wrapped up," Beijing-based Li Fangping, one of Tohti's defense team, said Tuesday in a post on his microblog.
"The verdict will be announced at a later date."
Li wrote that one lawyer and two of the students had spoken in their defense and that all had pleaded "not guilty" to the charges against them.
Repeated calls to Li's cell phone rang unanswered on Tuesday after the tweet was sent.
The one-day trial took place at the Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi, Reuters reported.
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.
Last Friday, the Urumqi High People's Court rejected Tohti's appeal against his sentence.
Shrouded in secrecy
But while Tohti's trial received widespread media coverage, the trial of his students appears to have been deliberately shrouded in secrecy.
China's tightly controlled state media made no mention of the case, and court, police, and government officials in Urumqi all declined to answer inquiries from RFA about the case, saying they "weren't clear about the situation."
However, it is likely that the students named in Tohti's case files as Muslim Uyghurs Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Tursun, Abdukeyum Ablimit, Mutellip Imin, and Atikem Rozi, as well as ethnic minority Yi student Akebai'erheluoyuwei are among those on trial.
Li told Reuters the seven were charged with separatism, while at least three of them have confessed on state television that they worked for Tohti's Uighur online (uighurbiz.net) website.
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-medium education in 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.
Tohti, 45, had allegedly "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students" working on the website, prosecutors claimed.
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.
No more news
Tohti's wife Guzelnur told RFA on Tuesday that she had received no more news of the students, none of whom has been officially named, since speaking with Perhat's mother on Nov. 12.
But she said some of the families would have great trouble coming to the aid of the students, many of whom have been detained since January.
"Some of those families are in great difficulty," Guzelnur said. "They are from farming communities; they are all the children of farmers."
Halmurat and Tursun were initially detained by authorities in Beijing where they were studying at the Central University for Nationalities on Jan. 15, the same day that Tohti was detained.
Ablimit, also from the Central University for Nationalities, was detained in Beijing on Jan. 17.
Tursun's family is from Urumqi, while Halmurat is from Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), the capital of Xinjiang's Ili Kazakh autonomous prefecture. The location of Ablimit's hometown is unclear.
Two other former students, Mutellip Imin and his girlfriend Atikem Rozi, were detained on the same day.
RFA spoke with Mutellip Imin last Dec. 10, World Human Rights Day, when he said human rights and religious freedom should be available to anyone, regardless of ethnicity.
"The [1948 United Nations] Declaration of Human Rights was a global manifesto, and China is one of its signatories," Imin said after holding up a placard in public with the words "Respect Human Rights" on it.
"As a Chinese citizen, my own human rights have been violated recently, so I am hoping to encourage a much wider concern about these issues, so that more people understand how one Uyghur student has been treated," he said.
"I want to tell people ... that we will implement the Declaration here in my country."
Originally from Hotan, Imin had earlier been detained in Beijing in July when he tried to return to his university in Istanbul and was held for 79 days. On his release, he had his passport confiscated by the authorities, barring him from traveling to Turkey, where he previously attended university.
Rozi, who is from Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture in western Xinjiang, was originally detained in Beijing on Jan. 15, but released by authorities that evening. She went to Tohti's home in Beijing to meet with him the following day, but was barred from entering the building and taken into custody again.
Meanwhile, Tohti's defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the former professor is currently awaiting news of his transfer from a police-run detention center in Urumqi to prison.
"He hasn't been transferred to jail yet, so it will probably be in a short while," Liu said.
The United States has called for the release of Tohti and his students, while exile groups have expressed concern over possible further violence as a backlash to government crackdowns in the region.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.