2014-09-23 Central Minzu University

September 23, 2014
Imprisonment / Prosecution
Ongoing Incident
Region/Sub-region: Country or Territory: 
Central Minzu University

On September 23, 2014, Ilham Tohti, an economics professor and advocate for the rights of the Chinese Uighur minority, was sentenced to life in prison after a criminal court in the regional capital of Urumqi found him guilty of charges related to separatism. 

Professor Tohti had been in custody since the afternoon of January 15, 2014, when Chinese police raided his family home, seized computers, cell phones, passports and student essays, and arrested him (as well as seven of his students who, as of this report, have yet to be tried).  According to reports, he was held incommunicado until late June, and thereafter continues to be denied regular access to family.  On July 30, 2014, Professor Tohti was formally charged with separatism, charges that reportedly stem from his teachings at the university and writings published on his former website, Uighur Online.

On September 16 and 17, 2014, Professor Tohti underwent a two-day trial in the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court, which was closed to the public.  Professor Tohti's lawyers have complained that they were denied access to evidence in advance of trial and were not allowed to call defense witnesses.  Evidence presented by prosecutors reportedly included Professor Tohti's teaching materials, as well as material taken from the Uighur Online website.  Professor Tohti reportedly maintained his innocence throughout trial, rejecting the charge of separatism, and insisting that his efforts had been to preserve ethnic unity, and to promote human rights, the rule of law, and autonomy for the Xinjiang region (home to most of China's Uighur population).

Following trial, the court found Professor Tohti guilty of advocating independence for the region of Xinjiang “disguised as high-level autonomy."  In addition, Professor Tohti's lawyer announced that the court had found Professor Tohti guilty of attacking government policies related to family planning and ethnic and religious issues; expressing support for terrorists; and "internationalizing" the issue of Uighur rights by speaking to foreign journalists. In addition to his life sentence, the court ordered that all of Professor Tohti’s assets be confiscated.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention and prosecution of a professor, apparently as a result of nonviolent scholarly and expressive activity – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State officials have a responsibility not to interfere with scholars’ right to expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Imprisonment and prosecution aimed at limiting such expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally. State officials have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of due process, fair trial, free expression and freedom of association.

Update: On Friday, November 21, 2014, a Chinese appellate court rejected Professor Tohti's appeal, upholding his life sentence.  According to reports, the hearing on Professor Tohti's appeal -- which took place in the detention center where he is incarcerated -- was called on short notice, and neither of Professor Tohti's lawyers were able to attend.  

This is an update to earlier reports.  To view, please click here and here.