Uighur blogger Ilham Tohti sentenced to life in prison on separatism charges

September 23, 2014 2:34 PM ET

Uighur blogger Ilham Tohti, pictured in Beijing in 2010, has been sentenced to life in prison. (AFP/Frederic J. Brown)

New York, September 23, 2014--The Committee to Protect Journalists denounces the life term handed down by a Chinese court today to Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur blogger and academic, and calls for his unconditional release. Tohti was found guilty of separatism by a court in the western Xinjiang region, according to news reports.

The Urumqi Intermediate People's Court convicted Tohti, a professor and founder of the independent news website Uighurbiz--also known as UighurOnline --after a two-day trial in the regional capital of Urumqi, where he was taken after his arrest in January, according to reports. The court ordered the confiscation of all his assets, news accounts said.

"We condemn this unjust and harsh sentence handed to Ilham Tohti," said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. "This provides yet another grim reminder of China's repressive and unrelenting approach when it comes to critical or moderate ethnic minority voices. No journalist should face such severe punishment."

During the trial, Chinese officials presented material representing Tohti's views on the Uighur minority and China's ethnic policies, much of which was drawn from his website and teaching materials. Officials argued that Tohti was the "ringleader" of a separatist group that included seven students, who have also been detained and will almost certainly face trial, Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping told The New York Times.

Prosecutors argued that Tohti had "internationalized" the Uighur issue by translating articles and essays about the Xinjiang region for his website, and by providing interviews to international media outlets, the reports said.

While some Uighurs advocate for an independent state, Tohti is considered widely as a moderate voice, according to news accounts.

After his arrest in January, Tohti was held incommunicado and without charge until late February, when his wife learned of his whereabouts after he had been charged with separatism, according to news reports. Chinese authorities accused him of fomenting ethnic hatred through articles in Uighurbiz, which criticized China's treatment of Uighurs and expressed concern about pressure on the ethnic minority after Uighur separatists were blamed for a deadly attack in Beijing last year, according to reports.

For months, Tohti was unable to meet with his lawyer, his daughter Jewher Ilham told CPJ in an interview earlier this year.

Li said that he would be filing an appeal on behalf of Tohti, according to news accounts.

In 2009, Tohti was questioned about Uighurbiz, and was detained for more than six weeks, CPJ research shows. Several bloggers affiliated with Uighurbiz have been given long jail terms, including Gheyret Niyaz, a contributor who is serving a 15-year sentence. CPJ documented at least 32 journalists in prison in China, many of them ethnic Uighurs, when it conducted its annual census on December 1.

Tohti's website, which contained hundreds of articles written by the blogger and others, remains shut according to recent news reports. A message on the site says it is under constant DDoS attacks.

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