HONG KONG—A court in China's troubled northwestern city of Urumqi, which was rocked by ethnic violence last year, appears to be stalling an appeal hearing in the case of an ethnic Uyghur journalist handed a 15-year jail term, supporters said.
Outspoken Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti said the family of journalist and webmaster Gheyret Niyaz has heard nothing about his fate since a court sentenced him on July 23 for "endangering state security."
Beijing-based Tohti also said Gheyret's family has been unable to secure the best legal representation.
"After the first hearing, three lawyers from Beijing went up to Urumqi and made contact with Harat's family," Tohti said. "But in the end they were unable to take on the case, probably because the authorities wanted to keep it secret."
"Even his family has heard nothing about it to date."
He said no details of any appeal hearing had been released, either.
"According to my information, he hasn't been transferred to prison [from police custody], and the details of the judgment haven't been released," Tohti added.
"Gheyret is still being detained in the Urumqi municipal detention center," he said.
'Wife afraid for her job'
Beijing-based rights lawyer Teng Biao said he was one of the lawyers who contacted Gheyret's family at the time of the trial.
"In the end, his wife was afraid for her job, so she didn't meet with me," Teng said.
"Gheyret is being represented by a local lawyer. We don't know whether the lawyer was appointed by the authorities on his behalf," he added.
"His relatives were frightened, and they didn't want to appoint a lawyer from Beijing."
"I have no information about any appeal. I never heard whether the appeal hearing had begun, either," Teng added.
'Too many interviews'
Niyaz, 51, was detained at his home in Tacheng city in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in early October 2009.
His family received word three days later that he had been formally detained on charges of "endangering state security."
A former deputy director of the official Xinjiang Legal Daily, Gheyret was employed at the official Xinjiang Economic Daily as a journalist at the time of his detention.
Niyaz also served as webmaster and administrator of the Uyghur Online website, run by Tohti.
In its 2009 annual report, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) noted that Uyghur Online and its staff were uniquely targeted after the 2009 violence.
When Niyaz was detained in October, he was taken to the Heavenly Mountain District [Tianshan Qu] detention center in Urumqi, capital of the XUAR, friends said.
Police said “he did too many interviews with foreign media about the July 5 Urumqi riots,” one source said.
Three life sentences
Uyghur activists in exile expressed shock at his arrest because he was widely regarded as pro-government, even warning XUAR officials in July that ethnic riots could be imminent, although the exact content of his warning is unknown.
In August, Urumqi authorities also sentenced three ethnic minority Uyghur webmasters to life in jail for alleged separatist offenses.
Dilshat Perhat, webmaster and owner of Diyarim; Nureli, webmaster of Salkin; and Nijat Azat, webmaster of Shabnam were sentenced to five, three, and 10 years in jail respectively, also for "endangering state security."
The verdicts were handed down in a series of closed trials at the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court, sources said at the time.
All three websites publish online in the Uyghur language, spoken by the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority.
Ethnic Uyghurs took to the streets en masse in July 2009 in an initially peaceful demonstration to protest a violent attack weeks earlier against Uyghur migrant workers in far-off Guangdong province, which officials allegedly failed to quell promptly.
The clashes in Urumqi left some 200 people dead, by official count.
Chinese authorities detained hundreds of people in the aftermath and charged an unknown number with fomenting the violence.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.