Ethnic minority Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, an outspoken critic of Chinese policies in the restive Xinjiang region, may have been put on trial and sentenced in secret, according to his lawyer, quoting unconfirmed reports.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping said he had heard that the trial proceedings for Tohti, who was charged with separatism a month after he was detained in January, had been held but that the Chinese authorities would not confirm it.
"I can't confirm this right now. This information was given to me by a friend," Li told RFA’s Mandarin Service.
Asked if the information was reliable, Li said: "I'm not sure, and I have no way to confirm it.“
“The state security police aren't picking up the phone. If the case has been sent to trial in secret ... this could happen very quickly, so there is a worry [that this may have happened]. We can't rule it out."
But he declined to comment further.
Tohti, an economics professor at The Central University for Nationalities in Beijing, was dragged away from his home in Beijing by dozens of police on Jan. 15, and formally arrested on Feb. 20 on separatism charges.
If his trial has been held, it is not known whether Tohti was charged with committing the state security crime of “separatism”—which can result in the death penalty—or for the lesser crime of “inciting separatism,” which carries penalties ranging from less than five years to 15 years maximum.
No meeting allowed
Li has not been allowed to meet his client, although the charges facing Tohti are serious. Rights groups are concerned that he could face torture in custody.
Uyghur human rights groups have said that Tohti's detention is part of Beijing's broad strategy to drown the voices of the minority Uyghurs and underscores its increasing hard-line stance on dissent surrounding Xinjiang, where Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness.
Tohti's wife Guzelnur, who has been living with their two sons under heavy surveillance at their apartment in Beijing since his detention, said she had no more information than Li.
"He heard this information from the Urumqi police, that Ilham Tohti had already been sentenced. But I don't know what is actually going on."
"Li Fangping is in Shanghai right now, and he will visit us tomorrow.”
“I think it's strange. How could they do that? They didn't inform the family. They are acting illegally. Can you bring a case to trial in such a way legally?"
Tohti’s university had stopped paying his salary last month, leaving Guzelnur and their young sons little to survive on as they struggle to cope with his disappearance.
Tohti's case comes amid tensions following a spate of deadly attacks in Xinjiang—home to the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, who complain of heavy-handed rule and ethnic discrimination under Chinese rule.
Xinjiang authorities declared a one-year crackdown on “violent terrorist activities” last month following a May 22 bombing at a market in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi that killed 43 people, including the four attackers.