BEIJING (Reuters) - A prominent Uighur academic charged with separatism rejected evidence presented by Chinese prosecutors on Wednesday on the first day of a trial that has drawn criticism from international judicial and human rights activists.
Authorities in China's western Xinjiang region say Ilham Tohti, an economics professor who championed the rights of the region's Muslim Uighur people, had promoted its independence, serious allegations which carry the maximum penalty of death.
Tohti's case, which has attracted high-level concern in the United States and the European Union, is seen as an extension of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to violence.
Prosecutors "essentially finished" presenting evidence against Tohti, including testimony from his former students, his lawyer, Li Fangping said, rejecting it as made under duress.
"Most of the students said Professor Tohti had separatist goals or intentions," Li told Reuters by telephone after the first day in court in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.
"We believe they weren't trustworthy statements, that they were made under pressure," Li said, adding that Tohti refused to accept the testimony.
Seven of Tohti's students, who had worked on a Uighur-language website he managed, were also detained after his Jan. 15 detention in Beijing. Tohti and his student were sent to Urumqi, despite his lawyers' petitions to have the trial transferred to Beijing where he lived and worked.
Beijing blames a series of violent attack in Xinjiang and around the country on Islamist militants, who it says want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
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.
Police set-up a two-block cordon around the court in Urumqi and blocked access to reporters and a group of at least nine Western diplomats who sought to observe the trial, one diplomat told Reuters by telephone.
One said authorities had told the diplomats, from countries including the United States, Britain, France and Germany, that they had not applied for access in time, though the trial date was only confirmed by Tohti's lawyers on Friday.
A photo obtained by Reuters of the scene near the courthouse showed police with riot shields and batons setting up six-foot tall poster-like barricades with phrases invoking "openness" and "unity".
"Let the world understand Xinjiang, let Xinjiang go out to the world," one of the posters read.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, reiterated at a regular press briefing that "China's judicial organs will try the relevant case on the basis of facts in accordance with the law".
But Tohti's prosecution prompted an international outcry.
The United States and the European Union have called for Tohti's release, and his lawyers have decried judicial abuses and mistreatment, from his being incommunicado in detention to the withholding of food for more than a week at a time.
"We reiterate our calls for Chinese authorities to release Professor Tohti and the students who were detained with him," a U.S. Embassy spokesperson told Reuters.
"...His arrest silenced an important Uighur voice that peacefully promoted harmony and understanding among China's ethnic groups, particularly Uighurs," the spokesperson said, adding that China needed to differentiate between "peaceful dissent and violent extremism".
China says extremist groups in bordering south and central Asian countries are spurring the violence in Xinjiang and around China, though the government has produced little evidence and experts question the extent of the links.
Activists counter that the government's repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest pitting Uighurs against China's ethnic Han majority.
Tohti has repeatedly denied the charges he faces, which provide for a sentence of 10 years to life in prison, or a maximum punishment of death in extreme cases. The ruling Communist Party tightly controls courts and guilty verdicts in such cases are typically a foregone conclusion.
Human Rights Watch has called the trial a "travesty of justice" and the exiled World Uyghur Congress said his prosecution would only intensify ethnic conflict.
"China hopes that by charging Ilham Tohti it can threaten Uighur intellectuals of conscience to accept and spread China's policies of enslavement," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the group, said in an emailed statement.
Editing by Nick Macfie