A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced Ilham Tohti, a prominent advocate for the rights of China’s Uighur minority, to life in prison for “inciting separatism,” his lawyer said. The verdict came months after Tohti said he would likely face harsh legal consequences for his advocacy amid mounting ethnic tensions between Uighurs and China’s majority ethnic Han.
The court also ordered Tohti’s assets confiscated, according to his attorney Li Fangping, leaving Tohti's wife and three children without any means of supporting themselves.
Li, a prominent human rights lawyer, said he is “very much intent” on appealing the decision. Tohti earlier this month pleaded not guilty to his charges.
Tohti, who had been an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University, penned a blog called Uighurbiz.net, which documented what he called the socioeconomic and religious repression of Uighurs in their native region of Xinjiang, and in the rest of China, where many are migrant laborers.
Tohti, a member of China’s Communist Party, told Al Jazeera he had never received any backing from international Uighur rights organizations, one of the charges lodged by Beijing, and that he hoped through the Chinese legal system to improve the conditions faced by Uighurs.
“I have never committed any crime or done anything against Chinese law,” he said. “I am calling for people’s rights, rule of law, freedom of religion and against discrimination” for Uighurs and all Chinese citizens.
Tohti likened himself to other Chinese human rights activists attempting to preserve rule of law in the People’s Republic through what he said were purely constitutional means – activists including Hu Jia, who spoke in support of Tohti in March after he was charged with separatism, and dissident artist Ai Weiwei.
Tohti appeared to foretell his incarceration in a September interview with Al Jazeera.
“The [Chinese] government’s relationship with me and Xinjiang is similar. When they crack down on Xinjiang, they crack down on me,” Tohti said of his perennial house arrests, adding that he may face torture and imprisonment for his advocacy amid mounting tension with China’s predominantly Muslim Uighur minority.
“This is my destiny,” he added.
Xinjiang, which abuts South and Central Asian nations including Pakistan and oil- and energy-rich Kazakhstan, is of great strategic and economic value to Beijing. In September last year, China signed a slew of contracts with neighboring nations to import oil and gas directly into the region. Uighur rights activists have said religious repression is one means of controlling a restive Uighur public that Beijing sees as a threat to its commerce.
In recent months, Tohti, both in interviews and through his website, has helped bring to light other religious restrictions imposed in Xinjiang. Local governments have barred women wearing traditional headscarves from entering public venues. In one case in Aksu, local officials placed the Chinese flag at the head of a mosque, in an apparent bid to make worshippers bow to a symbol of the state.
Before Tohti’s sentencing, his daughter, Juer Yilihamu, said she had hoped recent calls for legal reform by high-ranking Chinese officials – which some activists said would aim to prevent defendants from systematically being treated as guilty until proven innocent – would mean a fair trial for her father.
But Fordham University Chinese law expert Charles Minzner said that politically charged trials like Tohti’s are decided by committee, long before sentencing.
Beijing has blamed Uighur “terrorist groups” for a recent string of attacks on Chinese public venues, including a car crash that killed five at Tiananmen Square, a symbol of Communist Party rule, in October 2013. Rights groups say that virtually all information on the attacks is funneled through Chinese authorities and state media and have called for transparency about the circumstances.
Despite calls for legal reform, high-ranking officials have in recent months called for expedited trials and sentences that would set examples in terrorism-related cases.