BEIJING (Reuters) - An ethnic Uighur academic in China is being kept in shackles and has been refused warm clothing ahead of his trial in the Xinjiang region, his lawyer said on Tuesday, in a case that has drawn concern over judicial and human rights abuses.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor who championed the rights of Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur people, is due to go on trial on separatism charges on Wednesday in the region’s capital of Urumqi.
Tohti was detained in January and accused of promoting Xinjiang’s independence from China. His arrest is seen as part of a broader crackdown on what the government says is violence carried out by Islamist militants and separatists there.
“He said he is still in leg irons. Urumqi is already cold, but he is still wearing shorts sleeves and he has fallen ill. He has not been given the clothes his family sent to him,” Tohti’s lawyer Li Fangping told Reuters by phone.
“Given the situation, his spirits are actually quite good,” Li said after meeting his client on Monday, adding that prolonged exposure to such conditions constituted a violation of Chinese law.
Li said prosecutors had denied a request to have the trial moved from Urumqi to Beijing, where Tohti lived, worked and operated a Uighur-language website. Several of Tohti’s students, who had worked on the website, have also been detained.
“They won’t even give him access to photos sent by his family. After a month they say they are still evaluating the pictures. They are worried that there are secret codes in the pictures,” Li said.
Reuters was unable to reach the court for comment.
The government blames violence in Xinjiang and across the country on Muslim militants, who, it says, want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
‘PEN AND PAPER’
Activists say the government’s repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest that has pitted Uighurs against China’s ethnic Han majority.
Beijing denies that. It says militant groups in neighboring south and central Asian countries are promoting separatism and violence in China, though it has offered little evidence and experts have questioned the extent of the links.
Tohti, who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, which specializes in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organization or foreign-based group and has “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.
He has repeatedly denied the charges he faces, serious allegations that would likely mean 10 years to life in prison, or a maximum punishment of death. The Communist Party tightly controls courts and guilty verdicts in such cases are typically a foregone conclusion.
The United States and the European Union have called for Tohti’s release, and his lawyers have decried judicial abuses and mistreatment, from his long incommunicado detention to the withholding of food for more than a week at a time.
“We intend to send somebody to the trial,” the EU ambassador to China, Hans Dietmar Schweisgut, told reporters when asked if the EU would dispatch a diplomat to Urumqi even if China did not respond to its request to allow an observer in court.
China’s Foreign Ministry would not directly answer questions about whether diplomats would be allowed to attend, though typically they are not in human rights cases.
“The trial for this case will be done completely according to the law,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a daily news briefing.
Human Rights Watch said Tohti’s prosecution was “a disturbing example of politicized show trials and intolerance for peaceful criticism”.
“If Tohti – a peaceful, articulate critic – is given a harsh sentence, what confidence can any Uighurs have that their very real grievances will ever get a hearing with Chinese authorities?” the group’s China director, Sophie Richardson, said in an statement.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel