A trial for seven students of a economics professor and rights’ advocate serving a life sentence for “separatism” in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province began on Tuesday. The students volunteered for a website founded by Ilham Tohti who is an outspoken proponent for the rights of the country’s minority Uighur ethnic minority.
Courts sentenced Tohti to life in prison last week, after a 2-day trial on separatism charges last week. His students are charged with “splitting the country,” a crime that could carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors say that Tohti “bewitched and coerced young ethnic students” by a website he founded. Although it was banned by government censors in 2008, he maintains that the site never supported any sort of anti-state activity.
“Uighur Online is managed to prevent any pro-independence, separatist, or irresponsible inflammatory postings, and it does not post subversive materials,” Tohti said in 2011.
But the professor has voiced his concern for the plight of China’s Uighurs. Thousands have died since 2009 in violence they see as ethnic oppression and that the Chinese government has often attributed to a violent insurgency. Uighars are, on the whole, poorer than the Han majority. A lack of quality education and job opportunities have led to deep resentment among the population — especially since Han Chinese have increasingly moved into their province to extract its stockpiles of oil, coal, and natural gas.
“As a Uighar intellectual, I naturally have deep feelings for my ethnic group, and I feel uneasy about its impoverishment and its many sufferings attributable to historical and circumstantial factors,” he said, but added that his connection to the plight of the Uighars didn’t necessarily undermine his Chinese pride.
This is a point he stuck to when put squarely on the defensive.
“I support the unity of the country and oppose separatism,” Tohti said during his trial. “The idea of separating the country has never occurred to me, and I have never been involved in any separatist activities. There is no separatist group.”
The severe — and possibly inflated — charges against Tohti and his students signals an increasingly harsh approach to those advocating for Uighur rights — and other causes too.
Hu Jia, a dissident in Beijing told the LA Times that Tohti’s case would further stifle activism across China. “But obviously Tohti’s situation is rather unique, since he’s the only Uighur person who has a voice in China.”
Now that seven of his students might join Tohti in jail, there may be no one left who is willing to speak for the rights of Uighurs.