Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang on Friday rejected an appeal by jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti against his life sentence for "separatism."
The 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, following his conviction on a charge of "separatism" by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang on Sept. 23.
Tohti, 44, immediately voiced protest when the verdict and sentence was announced, despite arguments from his defense team that much of the evidence against him was dubious, and launched an appeal.
But the Urumqi High People's Court rejected his appeal on Friday at a behind-closed-doors reading of its judgment, despite repeated bids by Tohti's defense team to have the appeal heard in court.
"[Tohti] became very passionate and argued a number of points," his lawyer Li Fangping, who was present at the meeting, told RFA after the decision was announced.
"He said that this was an unfair judgment and that not all of the material facts of the case had been established," Li said.
"He said they were trampling the law."
Tohti has already said repeatedly that he will appeal to a higher court, if this appeal is rejected, Li said.
Tohti's older brother and his wife were allowed to attend the meeting in the police-run Urumqi No. 1 Detention center, Li added.
Initially, the authorities had ruled that no one but Tohti, his lawyers, court officials and law-enforcement officials, could attend, but the two relatives were invited at the last minute following repeated pleas by defense lawyers, he said.
Li said he had fully expected the appeal to be rejected.
"Ilham wrote 100 pages of argument to support his appeal, but the judge didn't even take it from him," he said. "He just handed out the written judgment."
"I don't think that they are sincere about a full and fair trial if they can ignore important material like that," Li added.
"There are more holes in this case than a leaky sieve."
Move to prison
Defense lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, who was appearing in court elsewhere at the time of the appeal meeting, said it’s now likely that Tohti will to be moved to a prison to serve his life sentence.
"The judgment has just become effective, and the rules state that he will be moved to a prison with a period of one month," Liu said.
Tohti's Beijing-based wife Guzelnur, who has been left with the care of the couple's young sons, said she is bitterly disappointed by the decision.
"I had really hoped they would cut the sentence a bit," she told RFA shortly after receiving the news.
"My mind is so confused right now, and I find it hard to think straight," she said. "I am still waiting for further news."
"I don't know anything about what went on there."
Tohti's conviction sparked a wave of condemnation in China and from the international community, with human rights activists 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.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said he was very angry at the decision, although it had come as no surprise.
"Xinjiang is full of violent acts, and yet here you have a Uyghur who is advocating peaceful dialogue and mutual understanding," Hu said. "He is the conscience of the Uyghur people."
"His imprisonment under China's inhuman stability maintenance regime shows us that the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party doesn't accept peaceful dialogue," he said.
"So now, Uyghurs have nothing left but violence as a way of making their voices heard."
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC) group, said he had expected Tohti's appeal to be rejected.
"The verdict and sentence handed to him by the Chinese authorities is entirely politically motivated," Raxit said. "They are just using a legal form."
"The message from the Chinese government is that there will be no change to its repressive policies targeting Uyghurs."
‘Travesty of justice’
The Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur American Association (UAA) asked the international community on Friday to “step up condemnation of China’s persecution of Ilham Tohti and his family and publicly express its concern over the fate of his students who are awaiting trial.
“Even with the disapproval of the international community over Ilham Tohti’s case still ringing in its ears, the Chinese authorities proceeded to deliver an appeal verdict that is clearly a travesty of justice and motivated by political considerations,” said UAA president Alim Seytoff in a statement.
“The calls for Ilham Tohti’s immediate and unconditional release need to be made bluntly to Chinese officials. Otherwise, the fate of not only Ilham Tohti and his students is perilous, but also any other Uyghur who exercises the fundamental right to freedom of speech.”
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-terrorism 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 Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.