Outspoken Uyghur economics professor Ilham Tohti said the family of journalist and webmaster Gheyret Niyaz is distraught by the news of his verdict on charges of "endangering state security."
"[His wife] Risalet and his mother are both very sad. Risalet said that no one can understand why the government gave him 15 years in jail, because he is a member of the Communist Party," he said.
"He always worked to foster communication between the government and the Uyghur people."
Niyaz, 51 and a former deputy director of the official Xinjiang Legal Daily, was employed at the official Xinjiang Economic Daily as a journalist at the time of his detention on Oct. 4, 2009.
His family received a warrant for his arrest four days later, relatives have said.
Niyaz also served as webmaster and administrator of the Uyghur Online website, run by Tohti.
Tohti, who is based in Beijing, said he hadn't slept for nearly 30 hours while he and an acquaintance searched for a lawyer to represent Gheyret Niyaz in his appeal.
"The government has given him 15 days to appeal his sentence through another court. Right now everyone is gathering together to prepare for this case."
"I'm sorry that I can't speak with any reporters right now. No one wants his case to become a forum for political propaganda for the Chinese government, so we are not speaking about the proceedings."
A lawyer in Urumqi, who asked not to be identified, voiced concern that Niyaz hadn't been allowed to request an attorney for his trial.
"I heard that the sentence was handed down by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court. I don't know if Gheyret Niyaz has access to proper representation. He may have had an attorney provided by the State who did not have Gheret Niyaz's interests in mind," the lawyer said.
The lawyer, who has represented Uyghurs accused of involvement in deadly ethnic violence last year in July, said he would be willing to represent Niyaz in his appeal case but hadn't been contacted by his family.
"Right now we have a little bit of time before the appeal is due. We are very disappointed with this verdict and we hope that the government will reconsider its decision," he said.
"Fifteen years is too great a punishment for Gheyret Niyaz as he only gave an interview to a member of the foreign media and wrote a few articles. This kind of verdict reflects poorly on the Chinese government's judicial process."
A university professor from Urumqi, who also asked not to be named, said the verdict would serve only to widen the gap between the government and the Uyghur community.
"Gheret Niyaz tried to help the government and was a mediator with the people. He told only the truth to the foreign media—he didn't have any bad intentions," the professor said.
"For Gheret Niyaz to get 15 years in jail because of this—it's bad news for all Uyghurs. This may set a precedent that means no one can speak from the heart anymore following this verdict. I no longer want to speak in support of the government. We can't trust the government anymore."
Tohti, who spoke with Niyaz's wife late July 23, said the journalist was tried in court at 8 a.m. that day.
He said Risalet had relayed to him what Niyaz had said during in response to the court verdict.
"He said, 'Yes, a member of the foreign media interviewed me. I told them what happened in Urumqi. But I didn't harbor any ill intention toward the government. I cannot understand why the court gave me 15 years in prison. I think it's unfair. I plan to appeal. I only did what I am supposed to do as a citizen and as a journalist.'"
Other sources, including Uyghur Online which is now hosted in the United States after it was repeatedly closed in China, reported earlier that his trial was imminent.
On Wednesday, Tohti said Niyaz’s wife had received no detailed information about her husband’s trial and added, “He is innocent.”
“He doesn’t hate the ethnic Han Chinese...He’s pro-[Communist] Party. Pro-government. He is a good reporter who told the truth. He spoke to foreign journalists, as a Uyghur intellectual who loves our nation and as a good reporter,” Ilham Tohti said.
“I hope and trust that the [authorities] will make a fair decision.”
In its 2009 annual report, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) noted that Uyghur Online and its staff had been uniquely targeted after the 2009 violence.
"In spring 2009, authorities shut down the website Uyghur Online, a multi-language news and discussion forum that addressed issues of ethnicity in China, and interrogated Beijing-based scholar Ilham Tohti, who runs the
site," the report said.
"Authorities later detained Ilham Tohti in July after XUAR government chairperson Nur Bekri alleged that Ilham
Tohti’s website contributed to incitement of rioting in Urumqi on July 5. Authorities released Ilham Tohti from detention on Aug. 2. The whereabouts of some other Uyghur Online staff members are reportedly unknown."
'Too many interviews'
Tohti said he and other supporters are trying to find a good lawyer for Niyaz and provide financial assistance for his wife.
Tohti, based at Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities, defended Niyaz from the outset.
When Niyaz was detained in October, he was taken to the Heavenly Mountain District [Tianshan Qu] detention center in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), friends said.
Police said “he did too many interviews with foreign media about the July 5 Urumqi riots,” one source said.
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.
After the riots, Niyaz gave interviews to several foreign publications in which he criticized the unequal distribution of wealth in Xinjiang and accused authorities of heavy-handedness in their campaign to fight Uyghur “separatism.”
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of northwestern China.
Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in July 2009 in rioting that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
Reported and translated from the Uyghur by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han.