Chinese authorities on Friday rejected an appeal against a life sentence by Ilham Tohti, a renowned Uighur scholar jailed on separatism charges. The court also held a closed-door trial for a journalist, Gao Yu, for revealing state secrets.
The case against Tohti, who has been a critic of Beijing's policies toward the Xinjiang region's Uighur community, is partly based on recordings of his lectures where he allegedly said that the Xinjiang region "firstly belonged to the Uighur ethnic group” and then to the Chinese Han community. Gao, a prominent journalist, is accused of providing state secrets to foreign contacts and faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, according to Agence France-Press (AFP). China has been widely criticized over the activists' detention, which is perceived as a sign of an increase in human rights violations in the country.
"The logic behind all of this is that their sense of crisis is getting worse and the regime is feeling more and more insecure," Zhang Lifan, an independent political commentator in Beijing, said, according to Reuters.
The 70-year-old Gao was imprisoned once before, for supporting the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, and was arrested again in April for allegedly allowing an overseas website to publish a Communist Party document after acquiring it illegally, according to The Associated Press. While the government did not specify the nature of the document, it may have been referring to a document that argued to curb the spread, within China, of Western values such as democracy and freedom of the press, which are viewed as a threat by the ruling Communist party, AP reported.
Tohti was accused of creating unrest in the country’s northwestern province of Xinjiang, through his ideas, while his supporters say he was only trying to mediate between the Uighur community and Chinese authorities. Violence in the Xinjiang region has killed 400 people in the last 20 months although Beijing claims that the clashes were incited by terrorists from outside China.
"If Gao Yu and Ilham Tohti were to receive genuinely fair hearings, the charges against them would be dismissed as blatant political persecution," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement, according to AP.
Tohti will now appeal to the country’s High Court and the Supreme Court against the life sentence, his lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan, said, according to Reuters, adding that he will also seek permission to serve his sentence in Beijing, where his wife and children live.