September 19, 2014 / 3:18 AM / 3 years ago

China separatism trial of Muslim scholar ends, verdict next week: lawyer

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s trial of a Uighur scholar on separatism charges completed its two days of evidence on Thursday, and his lawyer said a verdict in a case that has drawn international criticism would come next week.

Policemen in riot gear guard a checkpoint on a road near a courthouse where ethnic Uighur academic Ilham Tohti's trial is taking place in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

Prosecutors in China’s western Xinjiang region said economics professor Ilham Tohti, an advocate for the rights of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group, had promoted independence for the region on a website he managed called Uighurbiz.net.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of death in extreme cases, though Tohti’s lawyers say he faces the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence.

The United States, the European Union and human rights groups have called for Tohti’s release after a nine-month detention widely seen as part of a government crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to violence.

Tohti was on Thursday able to speak in his defence, his lawyer, Li Fangping, said, telling the court that he established the website to promote dialogue between Uighur and Han scholars and that he had publicly opposed separatism and violence.

“They heard him, but whether they will consider it is hard to know,” Li told Reuters by telephone from Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi where the trial was held.

Tohti rejected the prosecution’s evidence and said statements against him by student volunteers who had worked on the website were made under pressure from authorities, Li said earlier.

Li said the students had been held in solitary jail cells with their legs shackled and that Tohti had expressed understanding for their predicament and testimony.

“It’s difficult to say what the upcoming verdict will be. But the prosecutors were comparatively harsh, and they called for a more serious verdict,” Li said.

“We’ve been informed verbally that it [the verdict] will come on Tuesday,” Li said.

CROWDED COURT

China’s ruling Communist Party tightly controls courts and guilty verdicts in such cases are typically a foregone conclusion.

The government blames a series of violent attacks in which hundreds have died on Islamist militants who it says want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkestan.

Activists say the government’s repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest.

Tohti, who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and has “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) showed video from a small, crowded court where Tohti, dressed in an orange plaid shirt, addressed court officials while flanked by police.

“During the court proceedings, the prosecution was conducted in Chinese at the defendant’s request and the rights of the defendant and his legal advocates were fully guaranteed,” CCTV said. Members of Tohti’s family members, including his wife, sat in the crowd.

On Wednesday, a court in the southwestern province of Yunnan sentenced four people to between 10 and 20 years in jail for “plotting terror attacks”, state media said. All four had Uighur names.

Last week, three people were sentenced to death and one to life in prison for a March attack at Kunming train station in Yunnan in which 31 people died and 141 were injured.

The Xinhua news agency reported last week that Shen Deyong, the executive vice president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, had urged judges to “speed up trials of terror cases and deliver exemplary penalties”.

Reporting by Michael Martina and Joseph Campbell; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez

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