Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region say Ilham Tohti, an economics professor who championed the rights of the region’s Muslim Uighur people, had promoted its independence. He could face the death penalty if found guilty.
Tohti’s case is seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to violence.
Li Fangping, Tohti’s lawyer, said that prosecutors had presented evidence including testimony from the professor’s former students, which he rejected as having been made under duress.
Speaking after the first day in court in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, Mr Li said: “Most of the students said Prof Tohti had separatist goals or intentions. We believe they weren’t trustworthy statements, that they were made under pressure.” He said Tohti refused to accept the testimony.
Seven students who worked on a Uighur-language website Tohti managed were detained after the professor was held in January in Beijing. The trial was held in Urumqi, despite lawyers’ petitions to have it in Beijing, where Tohti lived and worked.
Beijing blames a series of violent attacks in Xinjiang and elsewhere on Islamist militants, who it says want to establish an independent state.
Tohti – who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies – has said he never associated with a terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and has “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” legal rights for Uighurs.
Police set up a cordon around the court in Urumqi yesterday and blocked access to reporters and a group of at least nine western diplomats who had sought to observe the trial, one diplomat said.
The United States and the European Union have called for Tohti’s release. His lawyers have also decried judicial abuses and mistreatment, from Tohti being incommunicado in detention to the withholding of food for more than a week at a time.
“We reiterate our calls for Chinese authorities to release Prof Tohti and the students who were detained with him,” a US embassy spokesman said. He added that China needed to differentiate between “peaceful dissent and violent extremism”.
China has said extremist groups in bordering south and central Asian countries are spurring the violence in Xinjiang and around China, though the government has produced little evidence of this.
Activists counter that the government’s repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest, pitting Uighurs against China’s ethnic Han majority.
Tohti has repeatedly denied the charges he faces, which provide for a sentence of ten years to life in prison, or a maximum punishment of death in extreme cases. The ruling Communist Party tightly controls courts and guilty verdicts in such cases are typically a foregone conclusion.
Human Rights Watch has called the trial a “travesty of justice”. The exiled World Uyghur Congress rights organisation said his prosecution would only intensify ethnic conflict.