Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Silencing a Uighur Moderate

Uighur professor and activist Ilham Tohti during his trial
We were kind of expecting jail time for Uighur academic and activist Ilham Tohti, but not life in prison for separatism charges. This makes him a worse criminal than Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

How can that be?

What has the 44-year-old Tohti done except try to take the more moderate path, trying to promote dialogue between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese; instead the economics professor, who speaks both Uighur and Putonghua, is lumped in with extremists who have committed violent acts.

The verdict today after the two-day trial last week resulted in condemnation by countries outside of China and human rights groups.

"I'm innocent, I protest," Tohti shouted to the court before the judge ordered police to drag him out of the courthouse, according to Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping.

Tohti's wife, Guzaili Nu'er, who saw her husband for the first time in eight months, cried out loud in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. The judge also ruled all of Tohti's property and money be confiscated.

"This is totally unacceptable," Li said. "He will appeal. Based on the wording of the verdict, this case is extremely politicized."

"It's very shocking, much harsher than anybody expected," said Maya Wang of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "It's quite unprecedented for someone who is so prominent."

In a statement, the European Union condemned the sentence, calling it "completely unjustified".

If China follows rule of law, then what evidence did the prosecution have to prove Tohti is a terrorist, or that he orchestrated extremists to conduct terrorist activities?

He denied being associated with any terrorist organizations, or even advocated independence for Uighurs. If one examines his writings, interviews and lectures, he has only tried to promote understanding between Han Chinese and Uighurs, and is proud to be Chinese, adding that Uighurs should stay in China.

But perhaps in this case being too moderate is not even tolerated.

"The tragedy of Ilham shows that solving a problem through peaceful means is impossible in China," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress in an email statement.

Prosecutors had claimed Tohti had promoted independence of Xinjiang through a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net. Xinhua added Tohti had "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate". The official news agency added, "He colluded with foreign groups and individuals in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international".

Again we ask -- where is the evidence? In his defense, Tohti testified he established the website to promote dialogue between scholars and he had publicly opposed separatism and violence. He also said statements made against him by student volunteers who had worked on the website were made under pressure from the authorities.

"It signifies that China is taking a hardline stance towards any Uighur moderates trying to put forward solutions that differ from the party's approach," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

One wonders how Tohti's family will move forward, a daughter studying in the United States -- who will probably have to live in exile -- and the rest of the family in Xinjiang with no financial resources.

This is how the Chinese government destroys people it believes are opponents to the state; it shows the authorities' paranoia over any kind of dissent -- no matter how rational it is.

Tohti was the one moderate and pragmatic voice for Uighurs. How will this ethnic minority in China carry on now? Who is going to speak for them? They are being further isolated and repressed.

This will only lead to increased terrorist attacks that will be more violent, and then that will give Beijing more ammunition to further clamp down on Uighurs.

It's a never-ending cycle that Tohti was hoping to break. And now that hope is gone.

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