A university professor who has become the most visible symbol of peaceful resistance by ethnic Uighurs to Chinese policies was sentenced to life in prison on Tuesday after being found guilty of separatism by court officials in the western region of Xinjiang, which Uighurs consider their homeland.
The punishment handed down to Ilham Tohti was the harshest that Chinese officials have imposed on a political dissident in recent years. Mr. Tohti was convicted after a two-day trial in Urumqi, the regional capital, that ended last Wednesday. He was taken by the police last January from his home in Beijing, where he teaches economics at Minzu University, and brought to Xinjiang, where he was charged with separatism.
“It’s not just! It’s not just!” he yelled as police officers dragged him from the courtroom, his lawyer, Li Fangping, said.
His wife, Guzaili Nu’er, who had not seen him in eight months until the trial started last week, wailed when the verdict was announced. Three of Mr. Tohti’s brothers supported her and led her back to a hotel.
Officials in Xinjiang are grappling with a surge in violence between the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighurs and the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China. Communist Party leaders have long said that Xinjiang is in a battle with the forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, and that all steps must be taken to stamp out the insurgency.
But foreign scholars, diplomats and human rights advocates denounce China’s hard-line policies against the Uighurs, and say the harsh measures that China has taken against moderates like Mr. Tohti will only lead to further radicalization of Uighurs and a rise in violence, including the kind encouraged by foreign jihadist groups.
Mr. Tohti, 44, was charged with organizing and leading a separatist group, Mr. Li, the lawyer, said in a telephone interview. As evidence, officials presented in court material representing Mr. Tohti’s viewpoints on Uighur identity and China’s ethnic policies, much of it drawn from his classroom teachings and the website he ran from late 2005 to 2008, Uighur Online. Officials argued that Mr. Tohti’s separatist group included seven of his students, who have also been detained and will almost certainly be tried, Mr. Li said.