Jailed Uyghur Scholar Remains Strong Despite Life Sentence

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Guzelnur (R), wife of Ilham Tohti, takes a rest as lawyer Li Fangping (L) chats with one of Tohti's three brothers outside the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court prior to the scholar's trial resumption after a lunch break, Sept. 17, 2014.
Guzelnur (R), wife of Ilham Tohti, takes a rest as lawyer Li Fangping (L) chats with one of Tohti's three brothers outside the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court prior to the scholar's trial resumption after a lunch break, Sept. 17, 2014.

Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti said Wednesday that he remained strong despite the life sentence imposed for "separatism" a day earlier by a court in northwestern China’s troubled Xinjiang region, expressing optimism that justice will prevail.

In a statement issued from a detention center in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, Tohti said he slept better the night after the trial in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi on Tuesday than at any time in the past eight months, and that he was surprised at his own reserves of inner strength.

"Before I came in here I was worried that I wouldn't be able to cope with the difficult environment, and that I would betray my own conscience, my career, and my friends and family," Tohti said in the statement recorded by his defense attorney Li Fangping during a visit to the detention center on Wednesday.

"But I got through it," said Tohti, who was detained in January along with seven of his students at the Nationalities University in Beijing, where he worked as an economics professor.

Tohti, who had immediately protested when the verdict and sentence was announced at the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court on Tuesday, also spoke about the need for peace from inside his Urumqi detention center.

"Peace is a gift from God to the Han and the Uyghur peoples, and we will only be able to work together for our common interests if we do so in peace," Tohti said in his statement.

"My aim was to cry out on behalf of our people, and even more for the future of China," he said.

He also pledged never to attempt suicide or any kind of self-harm while serving his life sentence, after being found guilty of organizing a "separatist group" and using his UighurOnline website to promote its views.

"If there are any reports that I have killed or otherwise harmed myself, they will be false," Tohti warned.

Optimistic despite sentence

He said he was still optimistic, regardless of the verdict imprisoning him for life.

"I may be gone from view, but I will still have hope for a brighter future," Tohti said. "I still firmly believe that China will improve, and that Uyghurs' constitutional rights will be respected. "

"I said what I wanted to say, and I hope that my case will help to advance the rule of law in Xinjiang, even if only a little," he said.

Both Tohti and Li expressed concern that the seven students may already have been tried and sentenced in secret, on similar charges.

"Yesterday evening, I heard my student Parhat next door to me lamenting loudly and banging on the cell door, as well as the sound of endlessly clanking shackles," Tohti said, adding: "Maybe they were sentenced, too."

Li said Tohti, 44, had appeared in good physical and mental health, in spite of the shackles, and was already preparing to appeal his conviction to a higher court.

"He's not doing badly at all," he said. "Of course, he's still in shackles, but he has already signed the formal appeal forms and hired a lawyer to file them."

"We are also assisting him in preparing his appeal and processing documents for him," he said.

He said the fate of Tohti's seven students remains unclear.

"I think they may have sentenced them, but I can't be sure," Li said.

"I don't know."

Activist supporters

A number of prominent Chinese activists have spoken out against Tohti's sentencing, as well as rallied to find donations to help support his wife, Guzelnur, and the couple's two young sons.

"After Ilham Tohti was sentenced, a lot of people have expressed their sympathy ... and are using international channels to raise money for his wife and children," Beijing-based activist Hu Jia said.

"This will help them to get by."

As well as a life sentence, the Urumqi court also ordered the confiscation of all of Tohti's assets, throwing up immediate questions about the Beijing property in which his family currently lives.

Hu said he had spoken to Guzelnur, who is still "very hurt" by the ruling.

"Her voice sounds very wobbly and weak, as if she's weeping the whole time," he said. "She suffered more than anyone yesterday."

Meanwhile, U.S.-based current affairs commentator Guo Baosheng said the harshness of the sentence handed down to Tohti shows that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is pursuing a policy of "blood and iron" in Xinjiang.

"It shows that they are going after moderates, and that the Chinese Communist Party really fears the influence that Uyghur intellectuals wield," Guo said.

"Once they align themselves with the majority of Uyghurs at the grassroots, they become a symbol for the Uyghur people," he said.

"This power is terrifying [to the government]."

Hangzhou-based freelance journalist and commentator Zan Aizong said similar actions on the part of Han Chinese wouldn't have resulted in "separatism" charges, which seem to be ethnically defined.

"For the Han Chinese, this would be called 'worrying about the state of the nation,' and they would be treated completely differently," Zan said.

He said even Nobel peace laureate and jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo had only received an 11-year jail term.

"Liu Xiaobo was convicted of 'subversion,' although his actions didn't amount to a crime either, but if he'd been from a different ethnic group, they would have labeled him a separatist," Zan added.

US response

In Washington, the White House issued a statement condemning the sentencing of Tohti, and calling for his immediate release.

"We believe that civil society leaders like Ilham Tohti play a vital role in reducing the sources of inter-ethnic tension in China, and should not be persecuted for peacefully expressing their views," the statement, posted on the White House website on Tuesday, said.

"We call for Chinese authorities to release Professor Tohti, as well as his students who remain in detention, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments and its own constitution," it said.

It called on Beijing to distinguish between peaceful dissent and violent extremism among Xinjiang's mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group.

Rights groups have also hit out at Tohti's conviction, 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-terror 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 RFA's Uyghur Service, by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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