After Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti saw his separatism charge upheld last week, seven students who had previously worked on the jailed scholar’s website stood trial on Tuesday for separatism in front of the same court that sentenced their former teacher to life in prison in September. Didi Tang reports for the AP:
Li Fangping, a defense lawyer for the economics professor Ilham Tohti, said at least three students pleaded not guilty and the court was expected to issue its verdicts at a later date.
He said the students were certain to be found guilty by the same court that sentenced their teacher – known for his criticism of the government and its ethnic policy – to life imprisonment in September and accused the students of being members of the professor’s criminal gang.
“The question is how many years these students will be jailed,” Li said. “But we don’t expect them to be jailed as long as their teacher.”
[…] Li said the students were charged for their involvement with the Uighur Online website, which the government has shut down. Some also were accused of attending religious meetings in Hong Kong, Li said.
Ilham Tohti told the court earlier that he set up the website to give Uighur people a voice and help Han Chinese understand the ethnic minority, but the court ruled that the professor used the site to incite ethnic hatred and promote separatism. [Source]
Earlier coverage from the New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs provides more personal details on some of the students—six of whom are ethnic Uyghurs, and one a member of the Yi minority—and on the secrecy that has surrounded their prosecution since they were detained in January:
Their prosecution, cloaked in intense secrecy, underscores the perils facing Uighurs amid a harsh clampdown on intellectual and religious life in Xinjiang, the vast borderlands that have become a geopolitical linchpin of China’s plans to expand its influence in Central Asia. In recent months, hundreds of young men across the region have been detained by Chinese security forces in a campaign that is ostensibly aimed at stanching jihadist activity but which critics say is often arbitrary and abusive.
In the days after Mr. Tohti’s conviction, three of his students, dressed in orange prison vests, appeared on state-run television to confess that they had exaggerated ethnic tensions on Uighur Online, the website run by Mr. Tohti. In his confession, Perhat Halmurat, the sociology student and a former editor of the website, blamed his teacher for an article he posted about a fight between a Han and Uighur student that had taken place on campus. “His unspeakable goal is to split the country,” he said.
[…] Family members have not been allowed to see the detainees, nor have they been given information about the charges against them. Several said they were simply told to show up Tuesday at the same courthouse in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, where Mr. Tohti was convicted in a closed trial. […] [Source]
The students’ trial comes as authorities are engaged in an “unprecedented war on terror” in Xinjiang, where an escalation of violence has been blamed on separatists and religious extremists. Widely regarded as a moderate advocate for Uyghurs, Ilham Tohti has long opposed Xinjiang independence.