US Expresses ‘Deep Concern’ over Uighur Scholar’s Life Sentence

FILE - Outspoken Uighur scholar and advocate Ilham Tohti speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing.

The Obama Administration has expressed its “deep concern” over the life sentence handed down Tuesday against prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on separatism charges. Analysts warn China’s action may only further radicalize ethnic minorities.

A White House statement described Uighur scholar IlhamTohti as a respected professor who has long championed efforts to bridge differences between China’s minority Muslim Uighur community and majority Han Chinese. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday said "peaceful dissent is not a crime," adding "the harsh sentence appears to be retribution for Professor Tohti’s peaceful efforts to promote human rights for China’s ethnic Uighur citizens."

The White House statement called for Tohti’s release and that of seven students, who were also arrested in January, "and a guarantee of their protection and freedom to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments and its own constitution." It said China should "differentiate between peaceful dissent and violent extremism."

Michael Clarke of Australia’s Griffith Asia Institute said such expressions of international concern may have the opposite effect of what is intended.

"Even within the statement of the verdict, there was a phrase to the effect that Mr. Tohti had, in fact, internationalized the Uighur issue by engaging with foreign journalists and so forth. So, I think statements like this from the United States will just be viewed as further proof of the effect of Mr. Tohti’s advocacy for the Uighurs," said Clarke.

Prosecutors argued during last week’s trial Tohti promoted separatism and encouraged violence with his lectures, articles, and frequent comments to foreign media. The 44-year-old Tohti rejected the accusations, saying he was only trying to promote dialogue and point out injustices. His lawyer said he plans to appeal the sentence.

China says it is fighting a foreign-backed insurgency in the western Xinjiang region. Uighurs complain they are the targets of religious and cultural discrimination. China, which has blamed a number of terrorist attacks on Uighurs, officially launched a one-year crackdown in May.

Uighur analyst Gardner Bovington of Indiana University called the life sentence the second-worst outcome, with the worst being the death penalty.

"I absolutely agree with Secretary Kerry it (the sentence) sends precisely the wrong signal to Uighurs, the people throughout China and the world about its attitude toward human rights, toward peaceful dissent and toward the promotion of dialogue to resolve longstanding problems," said Bovington.

The Wall Street Journal Tuesday called the sentence "shocking even for a communist regime" and warned that China’s policies in Xinjiang are "self-defeating" and Tohti’s imprisonment will only "further destabilize" the region. Bovington said ethnic minorities have no way to channel their discontent.

"A lot of people have suggested that Tohti’s arrest cut off dialogue, and the only criticism I would make there is there never was a dialogue in the first place. Beijing has never publicly agreed that there ought to be a discourse, a dialogue about the policies it has used in regions like Xinjiang and Tibet or that it has any interlocutors who have the right to question and air dissent about those policies," said Bovington.

Bovington added that since the Uighur community is not allowed to express its dissatisfaction, things are likely only to get worse.

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