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Minority Scholar Ilham Tohti Denies Chinese Authorities’ Accusation That He Led a Double Life at Separatism Trial

Maya Wang posted  two photos comparing the outlook of Ilham Tohti before and after the detention on Twitter.

Maya Wang posted two photos on Twitter comparing the appearance of Ilham Tohti before and after his detention.

Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur scholar in China who founded a website that promoted understanding between the ethnic minority and the country's Han Chinese majority, was put on trial for two days on charges of separatism this week.

Ilham, who is an advocate for peaceful ethnic reconciliation between the Uyghur Muslims and the Han Chinese, was arrested in January. The relationship between the two groups has been tumultuous; ethnic tensions have at times resulted in deadly clashes between Uyghur activists and authorities. 

The state's propaganda machine has claimed that Ilham was connected to the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas group that has been labelled as an extreme separatist group by the Chinese Communist Party. He is also accused of inciting his students to support separatism and spreading dissent through the the website he founded, Uyghur Online, which covered social issues from a Uyghur perspective. 

Ilham has denied the accusations. During the trial, his lawyers shot down authorities’ insistence that Ilham belonged to a separatist group. 

The Urumqi Intermediate People's Court's verdict is expected to be released next week.  

Some believe his arrest and prosecution could provoke or worsen ethnic conflicts in the western Xinjiang region, where the Uyghur people mainly live. During Ilham's eight-month detention, his family was forbidden to see him and his lawyers, Liu Xiaoyuan and Li Fangping, told the media that he was chained with leg irons and denied access to food and warm clothes.

Maya Wang, a human right activist, posted an update on the trial and tweeted two photos comparing Ilham's current appearance with how he looked before his detention:

As the court proceedings were closed to the public, Ilham's lawyers reported the details of the trial on Twitter and Twitter-like Sina Weibo. Most of Li Fangping's updates were deleted by Weibo censors, but were retweeted by Tibetan writer Woser on Twitter.

Liu Xiaoyuan pointed out that the arrangement of the trial was unfair. The Xinjiang court had denied all the lawyers’ requests for summoning witnesses to the case:

Before Ilham Tohti's trial, we had applied to the court to summon more than a dozen witnesses, but the court refused to send out the orders.

Ilham decided to speak for himself at court and Liu recorded his self-defense:

Ilham Tohti said: I support the unity of the country and oppose separatism. 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. I advocate for the rule of law in Xinjiang and the implementation of ethnic autonomy with respect to the law and human rights so that all ethnic groups can enjoy the fruits of development, equal job opportunities and eliminate regional, ethnic, gender and identity discrimination.

Li Fangping revealed that the prosecutor argued that Ilham lives a double life and his public speech did not represent what he believes. Li explained how he rebuked that argument in court (via Woeser's Twitter):

RT Lawyer Li Fangping: Ilham Tohti said on many occasions (to overseas media as well) that the future of the Uyghur people depends on China, and that he opposes separatist views. He had openly recited his position just 40 days before his arrest. But the prosecutor used that as an evidence to tell a story of Ilham's hidden double life (oppose separatism in public but engage in a separatist organization in private).

RT Lawyer Li Fangping: My question to the prosecutor was: given the fact that Ilham Tohti had been under surveillance in Beijing and Xinjiang, how could he have a double life? Moreover, his writings, online publications and university classes, all these activities took place in the public. Where is his other life?

Indeed, Ilham had been under 24-hour surveillance since he was released from his different detention following the July 2009 Urumqi riots.

The separatism charge was built upon Ilham's involvement in Uyghur Online, which was blocked by authorities in 2008. Officials accused him of actively organizing his students to promote separatist thought. Ilham explained how the website operated in court, as reported by Liu Xiaoyuan:

Ilham Tohti said: He founded Uyghur Online. But the website's editors, translators, administrators and technical support are all performed by students. Among the seven students who are charged, six of them joined the website two years ago. I have never organized any separatist group. I found in the evidence that the seven students have never admitted their involvement in the website's is separatist activities.

Li Fangping also questioned in court the existence of the so-called separatist group (via Woeser's Twitter):

RT Lawyer Li Fangping: Where is the separatist group? Almost all students said at the early stage of their detention that their teacher [Ilham Tohti] is a person with conscience and responsibility. But after a period of time, the students “reflected” and believed that they were cheated, then discovered that their teacher had or might have the intention to separate Xinjiang.

RT Lawyer Li Fangping: Where is the separatist group?… The students all said that they had never involved in any separatist activities. They drew a line between themselves and their teacher, asked the court to be lenient and expressed their wish to return to school, etc. If they don't have any intention to separate the country, can we call it a separatist group?

Ilham's household registration is in Beijing. According to common practice, the trial should then be held in Beijing. The current arrangement may indicate that his case is tainted with political considerations outside the rule of law. In China, all legal authorities, including the police and the court, are under the supervision of Politics and Law Commission of Communist Party of China.

Ilham made his final appeal during the trial:

Ilham Tohti has three major points in his final appeal: He demanded that the case be transfer to Beijing Intermediate People's Court; if the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court insisted to hold the trial, he pleaded the court to rule out intervention that comes from outside the judiciary. I am innocent and have never engaged in the organization of criminal groups that wish to divide the country and have never engaged in any criminal activities that divide the country.

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