China Uighur scholar appeals life sentence: lawyer

A prominent Chinese scholar from the Uighur ethnic group who was jailed for life because of remarks he made in university classes has appealed the verdict, his lawyer said Friday.

Ilham Tohti, a former professor, was handed the sentence on a charge of “separatism” by a court in the vast western region of Xinjiang last week, provoking an outcry from rights groups, as well as the United States and European Union.

Lawyers for Tohti, 44, formally filed an appeal on Wednesday, his lawyer Li Fangping told AFP.

China’s courts are tightly controlled by the ruling Communist party, and appeals in criminal cases rarely result in a change of verdict.

“In these kind of political cases, appeals are normally unsuccessful. It’s about expressing an attitude,” Li added.

The case against Tohti was in part based on recordings of university lectures in which he said that Xinjiang “firstly belonged to the Uighur ethnic group”, rather than China’s Han majority, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

State prosecutors cited criticisms Tohti made of China’s policy in Xinjiang, home to about 10 million mostly-Muslim Uighurs, in interviews with foreign media and on his website “Uighur Online”, as evidence that he was a “separatist”.

The prosecution’s case against Tohti also relied on statements made by his students, around seven of whom have been held incommunicado for months.

In an online posting, Mutellip Imin, one of Tohti former students, wrote that police last year held him without charge for 79 days, during which he was subject to repeated interrogations and forced to sign a statement denouncing the scholar.

“I raised objections, but they threatened to send me to jail for a year or two if I did not cooperate,” he wrote.

Police detained the scholar in January. His health has deteriorated as he has been denied food and kept in shackles, his lawyers have said.

Xinjiang has been hit by a wave of violence in the past year, including attacks on civilians and police shootings of locals that have left more than 200 dead.

China blames the unrest on organised terrorist groups seeking independence for the region, while rights groups cite resentment fuelled by government restrictions on Uighur religion, language and culture.