Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti in China to appeal life sentence

University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti pauses before a classroom lecture in Beijing on June 12, 2010. (AFP)

A prominent scholar who championed China's Uighur minority plans to appeal his conviction and life sentence, citing what he calls his improper detention and the authorities' refusal to give his lawyers copies of evidence.

Scholar Ilham Tohti has denied prosecutors' charges that he encouraged separatism while speaking and writing about the discontent in his native region of Xinjiang. A court in the regional capital of Urumqi sentenced him to life in prison Tuesday and ordered the confiscation of his possessions.

One of Ilham Tohti's lawyers, Li Fangping, said his legal team had not decided yet when to submit the appeal. He said Tohti himself could do that from the court in Urumqi.

Li showed The Associated Press the first page of the 15-page document Wednesday. It cited several legal issues including what it said was the failure of police to tell Ilham Tohti why he was being detained and the extracting of testimony after he went without proper food in jail for weeks.

Tohti's harsh sentence was the most severe in a decade handed down in China for illegal political speech and drew condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union.

President Barack Obama cited the scholar Tuesday among several people worldwide whom rights groups call political prisoners.

"They deserve to be free," Obama said. "They ought to be released."

When asked about the U.S. comments in a news briefing Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said some countries "made irresponsible remarks and brought up irrational requests in the name of so-called democracy and human rights, which were a harsh and unreasonable intervention over China's internal affairs and sovereignty."

She said China urged those countries to abandon "double standards and stop interfering in China's internal affairs."

The official Xinhua News Agency also criticized a Twitter message posted by Chinese writer Wang Lixiong that China had created in Ilham Tohti "a Uighur Mandela," referring to late South African leader Nelson Mandela who was jailed for 27 years before becoming president.

Xinhua said the analogy "displays not only a dangerous ignorance of history, but also a challenge to China's determination to keep its 56 ethnic groups united."

Xinhua cited ethnic violence that has caused the deaths of both Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang. It said Ilham Tohti used his online writings "to encourage his fellow Uygurs to use violence," an accusation the scholar has denied in court and in interviews.

"Their accusations against the court's ruling came as the warplanes of the United States and its allies bomb the 'Islamic State' militants in their anti-terrorism war," the editorial read. "It is only because of Western countries' double-standards on terrorism that a criminal was hailed as a hero."


Video journalist Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45