BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighur people will appeal against a life prison sentence that drew criticism from Western countries including the United States, his lawyer said on Wednesday.
A court in the western region of Xinjiang sentenced economics professor Ilham Tohti, 44, on separatism charges on Tuesday. The United States, the European Union and international rights groups condemned the sentence.
Tohti, who is an ethnic Uighur, is the latest moderate intellectual to be convicted by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration.
The government has blamed a series of violent attacks in which hundreds of people have been killed on Islamist militants from Xinjiang who it says want to establish an independent state there called East Turkestan.
But Tohti, who taught at Beijing’s Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organization or foreign-based group and “relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request” human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.
His lawyer, Li Fangping, told Reuters by telephone from Xinjiang there was little chance the appeal would bring a reduction in Tohti’s sentence.
“Very slim, almost zero,” he said. “But he wants to appeal to express his dissatisfaction with the sentence.”
In the appeal statement - posted by Li on the messaging app Wechat - Li cited irregularities during Tohti’s detention. Tohti was denied food for more than 10 days and kept in leg irons for at least 40 days, according to Li.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it has lodged a protest against the United States after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was “deeply disturbed” by Tohti’s sentence.
“Certain countries hold high the banner of so-called democracy and human rights to make irresponsible remarks and criticisms about such cases,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing.
“This is a groundless violation of China’s internal affairs and judicial independence. We express strong dissatisfaction with this and have made serious representations with the relevant country.”
Li said he would file an appeal for Tohti within two days. He met Tohti on Wednesday and said his condition was “not bad”.
“Yesterday, I had the best sleep in over eight months,” Tohti said, according to comments Li posted on the Wechat account.
“I’ve never realised that I have such a strong heart.”
Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Robert Birsel