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Chinese Court Jails Uighur Scholar For Life on 'Separatism' Charge

Economics professor Ilham Tohti was sentenced on charges that U.S. officials condemned as retribution for his political views.
University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti pauses before a classroom lecture in Beijing on June 12, 2010. A Chinese court on September 23, 2014 sentenced prominent scholar from China's mostly-Muslim Uighur minority Thoti to life in prison for "separatism," his lawyer said, in a case which critics say could add to tensions in the restive Xinjiang region. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWNFREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty ImagesFREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP - Getty Images

The Obama administration expressed its outrage Tuesday after a Chinese court sentenced the country’s most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people to life in prison. Economics professor Ilham Tohti, 44, stood trial for two days last week on separatism charges in the western region of Xinjiang.

"I'm innocent, I protest," Tohti shouted to the court before the judge ordered police officers to drag him out of the courthouse, according to Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping. Tohti, who is an ethnic Uighur, is the latest moderate intellectual to be convicted by Chinese President Xi Jinping's administration.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was "deeply disturbed" by Tohti's sentence. "Peaceful dissent is not a crime," Kerry said in a statement. "This harsh sentence appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti's peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China's ethnic Uighur citizens."

President Barack Obama said the United States was "standing in solidarity" with people who have been detained, including Tohti and imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. In a statement, the European Union condemned the sentence, calling it "completely unjustified".

In China, Tohti is regarded as an outspoken intellectual who has repeatedly criticized the government for not giving Xinjiang and its Uighurs more autonomy. His eight-month detention and harsh sentence is widely seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang.



— Reuters