The United States and the European Union have criticized China’s actions against the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was convicted of separatism on Tuesday and sentenced to life in prison.
Human rights groups and scholars have widely condemned the case. Many note that Mr. Tohti never advocated violence or called for creation of a separate Uighur state in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang. Rather, it appears that Mr. Tohti is being punished for his vocal criticism of Chinese policy toward minority groups like the Uighurs.
The White House said it was “deeply concerned” about Mr. Tohti’s conviction and sentencing, according to a statement from the press office. The statement continues:
He is a respected professor who has long championed efforts to bridge differences between Uighurs and Han Chinese. We believe that civil society leaders like Ilham Tohti play a vital role in reducing the sources of inter-ethnic tension in China, and should not be persecuted for peacefully expressing their views.
We call for Chinese authorities to release Professor Tohti, as well as his students who remain in detention, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments and its own constitution. We stress the importance of Chinese authorities differentiating between peaceful dissent and violent extremism.
Secretary of State John Kerry said that he and the American ambassador to China, Max Baucus, have raised Mr. Tohti’s case with the Chinese government, and Mr. Kerry called again on Tuesday for the release of the scholar and seven of his students who are also facing trial.
“Peaceful dissent is not a crime,” Mr. Kerry said, according to thestatement. He reiterated comments made by scholars and human rights advocates, that eliminating peaceful dissent will only fuel violence:
This harsh sentence appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti’s peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China’s ethnic Uighur citizens.
Ilham Tohti is known to the world for his many years working to foster mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue to peacefully promote harmony and unity between Uighurs and Han Chinese. His detention silenced an important moderate Uighur voice.
Mr. Tohti and those like him are indispensable in helping to resolve the underlying causes of unrest and violence. Silencing them can only make tensions worse.
The European Union also condemned Mr. Tohti’s conviction and sentencing, calling it “completely unjustified.” The European Union’s statement called for Mr. Tohti to be released immediately, adding that during his trial “due process of law was not respected, in particular with regard to the right to a proper defense.”
During a regularly scheduled news conference on Tuesday afternoon, a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, rejected foreign criticism of Mr. Tohti’s case.
“China’s judicial authorities made their ruling in accordance with the law,” Ms. Hua said. “I would like to remind you that China is a country governed by the rule of law, and China’s judicial authorities handled the case according to the law. We firmly oppose interference in China’s judicial sovereignty and independence by any country.”