An exiled Uighur group says the criminal charges against a prominent intellectual are "completely unacceptable" and meant to discourage others from defending the ethnic minority group.
Chinese authorities this week charged university professor Ilham Tohti with separatism, nearly six weeks after he was taken from his Beijing apartment without explanation.
Tohti teaches economics at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing. He regularly speaks out against what he considers China's mistreatment of the mainly Muslim Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang.
There appears to be no public record of him calling for independence in Xinjiang.
Dolkun Isa of the World Uyghur Congress tells VOA that the Uighur academic never engaged in any separatist activities, but was concerned with how to help solve the unrest in Xinjiang.
"The Chinese government should be [thanking] Ilham Tohti, they should be cooperating with Ilham Tohti, because he advised the Chinese government how to solve the problem, the conflict, between the Uighur people and the Chinese government," said Isa.
Isa is a former student leader from Xinjiang who was himself accused of terrorism by Beijing after he fled to exile in Europe in the 1990s. He says such charges have a chilling effect on those defending Uighur rights in China.
"That's why the Chinese government this time charged Ilham Tohti with separatism," he said. "It means, just silence, don't talk [about] anything. It is just to give some message to the other Uighur activists."
Guzaili Nu'er, wife of Ilham Tohti, right, pauses next to her husband's students at her house in Beijing, Jan. 16, 2014.
The 45-year-old Tohti has been detained or harassed several times in the past because of his commentaries. He told VOA in November plain-clothes police rammed his car, took his phone, and threatened to kill him because of his comments to the media.
He now faces anywhere from 10 years in prison to life in prison or even the death penalty, depending on how serious his alleged offense is deemed by China's Communist Party-controlled courts.
China says it is fighting what it calls Uighur terrorists affiliated with the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and trained in neighboring Pakistan.
Many Western human rights groups say China is exaggerating the threat in order to justify its repression of Muslim religious life and discrimination that has resulted from a large influx of majority Han Chinese to Xinjiang.