Uighur scholar defiant as China separatism trial ends

Beijing economics professor Ilham Tohti, who was convicted of separatism in September and sentenced to life in prison, pictured in Beijing on June 12, 2010

A prominent scholar from China's mostly-Muslim Uighur minority strongly rejected charges of separatism and said he loved his country as his trial ended on Thursday, his lawyer said, in a prosecution critics warned could worsen tensions in the unstable Xinjiang region. Ilham Tohti, a former University professor and outspoken critic of China's policies in the vast western region, told the court in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi he had "always opposed separatism and terrorism, and that not a single one of his articles supported separatism," according to his lawyer Li Fangping. The United States,the European Union, and several human rights groups have called for the release of Tohti, who stated his opposition to independence for Xinjiang in interviews, and now faces a maximum sentence of life in prison. In the past year escalating violence between locals and security forces in Xinjiang, the Uighurs' traditional homeland, has claimed more than 200 lives and prompted Beijing to launch a security crackdown on what it calls terrorist groups seeking independence for the region. Tohti, 44, said in a closing statement that "he loved his country...and that his opinion has always been that it is in the best interests of Uighurs to remain in China," Li said, adding that the scholar had spoken loudly with a hint of anger in his voice. He also told the court that it was "unjust," for the trial to take place in Xinjiang, as all the evidence presented by the prosecution related to his work in China's capital Beijing, where he has worked at a University for over a decade. Tohti was detained in January after he criticised the government's response to a suicide car attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which the government blamed on separatists from Xinjiang. His prosecution -- almost certain to result in a guilty verdict -- risks silencing moderate Uighur voices and cutting off the possibility of dialogue, critics say. The court is not likely to announce a verdict until next week at the earliest, Li added. - 'Mockery of justice' - Chinese courts are tightly controlled by the ruling Communist party and have a near-100 percent conviction rate in criminal cases. State prosecutors presented the court with a large amount of material, including videos of Tohti's university lectures and posts from his website "Uighur Online", as evidence that he had lead a separatist group, Li said. They also included testimony from some of Tohti's students, around eight of whom have also been detained. Tohti's detention prompted an outcry from human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as overseas groups run by Uighurs. "China's allegations against Ilham Tohti represent the government's typical manipulation of the judiciary," Dilshat Rexit, spokesman for the US-based World Uyghur Congress, said in a statement. "A Uighur intellectual who moderately and openly called on China to adjust its policies has lost his freedom," he said, calling the case "a mockery of justice". Nine diplomats from Europe and North America stood outside the heavily-guarded court as the trial opened on Wednesday, with a European Union spokesman calling for Tohti's release. Guzaili Nuer, Tohti's wife, attended the trial with three of the academic's brothers and appeared distraught. "He has never opposed the country or any ethnic group," she said. "He has never done anything like that." Tohti devoted decades to researching government policy towards Uighurs, about 10 million of whom live in Xinjiang, a vast, resource-rich and strategically important region which abuts central Asia. China blames ongoing unrest in the region on organised terrorists, while rights groups say cultural and religious repression of Uighurs has stoked violence. As a professor and writer, Tohti was known for his moderate stance on Uighur issues but was repeatedly subject to house arrest and prevented from leaving the country. He has been denied food and kept in shackles for weeks at a time during his detention, his lawyers say, and before the trial his wife told AFP she is continually tailed by security agents.