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China Begins Separatism Trial of Uighur Scholar

China has begun its trial of ethnic Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, a widely-regarded academic who has also openly criticized China’s ethnic policies in the remote and restive region of Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have charged the former economics professor with separatism, an accusation Tohti denies.

Security was tight outside the court in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi where the trial of Ilham Tohti was held. Much like his arrest earlier this year, details about the proceedings were limited. It is unclear when a sentence will be announced.

Foreign journalists were not allowed inside the Urumqi People’s Intermediate Court and police formed a barricade around the building. Western diplomats were also kept away from the proceedings.

One of his lawyers, Li Fangping, told VOA after the hearing Wednesday that the evidence against his client is inadequate, including the testimony of former students.

"Many of the testimonies were illogical, and that was why we raised doubts. Why were the organizers and members of the secessionist forces brought separately to trial? The security forces have investigated the case as a group of eight secessionists, but [split their trials]. Ilham was also very annoyed about it. And in this respect, there was no justice in the trial," said Fangping.

​Seven of his students are believed to have been arrested shortly after Tohti was taken into custody and at least some of them are thought to be testifying against him this week.

European Union diplomat Raphael Droszewski was among those who tried to attend the trial. He spoke with reporters outside the courtroom.

"We are here today because we would like to attend the trial of Ilham Tohti. We have already expressed our concern over his indictment, especially because Mr. Tohti worked peacefully within Chinese laws for years, especially to promote a good relationship between minorities in China and for equal rights," said Droszewski.

Rights groups and Western governments are closely watching the trial.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman says Tohti’s “arrest silenced an important Uighur voice that peacefully promoted harmony and understanding among China’s ethnic groups, particularly Uighurs.”

The spokesman said the United States has stressed to Chinese authorities the importance of differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism.

U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus is also in Xinjiang this week, leading a trade delegation to the region on a previously scheduled trip. While there, he will meet with Xinjiang officials.

The United States, the European Union and several rights groups have called for Chinese authorities to release Tohti, as well as several of his students who were detained earlier this year. Little is known about the whereabouts of his students.

Before his arrest in January, Tohti told VOA that plain-clothes police rammed his car, took his phone and threatened to kill him because of his comments to the media.

At a hearing in Washington D.C. earlier this year, hosted by the Congressional Executive Commission on China, his daughter testified Chinese authorities' have persecuted her family.

Tohti’s daughter Jewher Ilham is studying in the United States at Indiana University.

“Anyone who knows my father, realizes how bold these charges are. My father never speaks about separatism," she said. "By arresting my father, China has driven Uighurs to understand that their justified grievances can not get any sort of hearing."

Tohti has written about the Chinese government’s policies toward ethnic Uighurs for years, but came under increasing scrutiny over the past year or so as China saw a dramatic spike in violence blamed on extremists.

Tohti has long questioned the government’s official narrative when it comes to violent attacks that authorities brand as acts of terrorism. He has consistently argued that more transparency and facts are needed to understand the motives behind the attacks China is facing.

China blames the unrest on religious extremists and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which it says is conspiring to carve out an independent state.