HONG KONG —
Lawyers and family members of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti are strongly rejecting his indictment for separatism by a court in Xinjiang on Wednesday. Tohti is accused of inciting violence in the ethnically diverse region in western China, where the government is leading a campaign against terrorism. But supporters say he is a moderate man persecuted for his activism.
Wednesday’s indictment came more than six months after Ilham Tohti was detained in Beijing, and taken to Urumqi, where he will now face trial.
It came through a brief statement posted on the microblog account of the Urumqi People's Prosecutor.
Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping said the government failed to notify him the case was being transferred to the court, and he also does not have access to the official indictment.
“After he [Tohti] was detained the police wrote up a document," he said. "We are not clear whether the prosecution will use that document in its indictment. But Ilham Tohti and all of us lawyers believe that that the contents of that document does not constitute evidence of separatism.”
The document Li refers to is a police report that accuses the academic of using his website - Uighur online - to promote violence, separatism and hatred between Han and Uighur people.
The case has spurred criticism from the international community.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said she was concerned about the lack of transparency concerning Tohti's welfare and access to legal representation.
"We call on Chinese authorities to release Mr. Tohti and his students and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments, including freedom of expression,” she said.
For years the academic had been speaking out against what he said were failing government policies in Xinjiang.
The region is home to a majority of Chinese Uighurs - a Turkish speaking ethnic group. Most Uighurs are Muslim and are culturally very different from Han Chinese.
“At a time when the Chinese government is facing escalating tensions, that really should tell the government to reevaluate the policy in Xinjiang," said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Hong Kong. "Instead of listening to what Uighurs have to say about why this might be happening and try to look at the root causes, the government is slapping a heavy charge on a moderate advocate of Uighurs."
Over the past year, hundreds of people have been killed in attacks Beijing has blamed on terrorists who want the region to be independent."
But activists say Uighurs are driven towards extreme acts because of government discrimination, and the repression of religious practices and other freedoms.
In May, China launched a year-long campaign against terrorism in Xinjiang.
Since then, hundreds of people have been detained and police forces have increased security in areas already heavily policed.
But that has not stopped the violence.
In the most recent incident, Chinese media this week said police shot dead dozens of attackers near Kashgar.
The assailants had targeted government offices with knives and axes, according to the state news agency Xinhua.
The government has not released a precise death toll, nor added details on who the assailants were.
In his writings, Tohti has often talked about the danger that government repression in Xinjiang could lead to extreme acts, but he has also always rejected any involvement with terrorism.
In a statement he gave to Radio Free Asia before his detainment, he said he never associated with a terrorist organization.
“The path I have pursued all along is an honorable and a peaceful path,” he said and added he had relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request the human rights, legal rights, and autonomous regional rights for the Uighurs.
It is unclear when the trial will be held. Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping says he will travel to Xinjiang next week and he will request to meet with Tohti.