Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have transferred the case against jailed ethnic minority Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti to the state prosecutor's office, paving the way for a trial, according to his lawyer.
Lawyer Li Fangping said he was notified about the development by the police department in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi.
Li had previously received an unconfirmed report that Tohti, an outspoken critic of Chinese policies in the restive Xinjiang region, had been put on trial and sentenced in secret on separatism charges.
Li told RFA that police had denied the report during a meeting on Monday in Urumqi.
"I held a meeting with the state security police at the Urumqi police department this morning, and [Tohti's] case was transferred to the procuratorate last week," he said after the meeting.
“When I asked them ... about the phone call [from police] last week saying the trial had already taken place, they were noncommittal," he said.
"They said the case had passed to the indictment stage last Thursday, and had been sent to the ... Urumqi municipal prosecutors' office."
Li said officials at the municipal procuratorate had later confirmed that Tohti's case is currently with them, paving the way for a trial.
He said he had applied for permission to read the case file.
“The person who saw us said the prosecutor in charge of the case was away on business, and we would have to wait until he gets back," said Li.
Li and fellow defense lawyer Wang Yu were later denied permission to visit Tohti at the Urumqi detention center where he is believed to be held.
Chengdu-based rights activist Pu Fei, himself an ethnic Uyghur, said there remain many unanswered questions about the ruling Chinese Communist Party's handling of the case, however.
“We haven't been able to see any of the documents of the case, and we hope that the authorities will make more details of the case public," Pu said.
"If they do everything behind closed doors, it is going to give rise to unnecessary assumptions [about what is happening]," he said.
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.
It is still 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.
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, a long-time advocate of Uyghur rights and a critic of Beijing's policies in Xinjiang, also ran the popular website Uyghur Online at Uighurbiz.net, which was unavailable on Monday, bearing simply the message "We will be back!!!"
Meanwhile, relatives of detained Uyghur student Mutellip Imin, one of a number of students who helped edit and publish Uyghur Online, said his case had also been sent to the state prosecutor's office, making a trial look likely.
Imin, 24, was detained in Beijing in July 2013 when he tried to return to his university in Istanbul and was held for 79 days in his hometown outside of Hotan.
"It's at the Urumqi procuratorate," Imin’s brother told RFA on Monday, while his sister added: "We have asked [the police] but they say they don't know anything because it's a matter for the higher-ups."
She said the family hadn't been allowed to visit Imin in detention.
"Someone told us that they won't take any items of any kind [such as food parcels or clothing,]" she said.
Accused of separatism
The English-language tabloid Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said in a January report that Tohti had "colluded with overseas "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" forces to incite 'independence' of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region through the Internet."
Citing the Urumqi Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang, it said Tohti had participated in separatist activities, forming a criminal gang under his lead.
"Through the website Uyghur Online (uighurbiz.net) which he founded, Tohti recruited and manipulated some people to make rumors, distort and hype up issues in a bid to create conflicts, spread separatist thinking, incite ethnic hatred, advocate 'Xinjiang independence' and conduct separatist activities," the paper said.
It accused him of calling during lectures for a violent struggle by Uyghurs against Chinese rule.
"He made use of his position to rope in, lure, and threaten people to build connections with 'East Turkestan' forces and to organize and send people overseas to participate in separatist activities," the paper quoted police sources as saying.
Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, as the region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
Tohti's university stopped paying his salary last month, leaving his wife Guzelnur and their two 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 Urumqi that killed 43 people, including the four attackers.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.