Written by Jackie Sheehan.

Can anyone produce a genuine, verified statement by Ilham Tohti supporting independence for Xinjiang or advocating violence by Uyghurs? The answer is no, because he has never done so.

The guilty verdict against respected Uyghur economist and writer Ilham Tohti was a foregone conclusion, and holding the trial in Xinjiang when Tohti has long been a permanent resident of Beijing, created his website there, and taught students at Minzu University in the capital, was a warning of a harsh sentence to come. But still, the verdict of life imprisonment for alleged “separatism” on 23 September came as a shock to many. Given reports of the conditions in which he was held before his trial, including the denial of warm clothing brought for him by relatives, being kept in leg shackles and manacles for 20 days, and being denied treatment for several medical conditions, the severity of the sentence might be intended to force him to accept medical parole abroad, exile, in effect, as an alternative to a prolonged incarceration which he might not survive.

Then again, it might not. After the July 2009 protests in Urumqi, Tohti was detained and exhaustively questioned about the unrest, and even though this investigation cleared him of any violation of the law or attempt to incite violence, which flatly contradicts the verdict just handed down against him, he was specifically warned against speaking to the foreign media, and police visited him at home to tell him he could still be sentenced to death on separatism charges. That threat has been hanging over him for years, prompting him to prepare a statement in in July 2013 detailing, among other things, that he would never commit suicide, a precaution against his death by other means being labelled that way.

Long before the trial started, back in March 2014, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) chairman Nur Bekri had publicly stated that the evidence of Tohti’s separatism was “irrefutable.” Still, every precaution was taken against Tohti and his lawyers’ being able to refute it, as he was denied access to counsel for the first six months of his detention, and at trial, his lawyers were unable to call any of their own witnesses. This is normal practice in Chinese trials, but since the evidence against him, such as it is, seems to be from a group of his students who have provided it while held in solitary confinement in leg shackles themselves and awaiting their own trials, we can perhaps be excused for treating it as less than wholly convincing when it was not even tested in court. And it is hard to believe that a 66-page verdict which took three hours to read out in court was written between close of business last Thursday and this Tuesday morning.

Ilham Tohti is not a separatist. Neither is he a terrorist. He has never advocated violent insurrection in Xinjiang or anywhere else. He has never called for the independence of Xinjiang or for the establishment of an independent East Turkestan. My offer at the start of this post is genuine, and I am quite certain my money is safe, because all Ilham Tohti has ever done is research economic and social conditions in Xinjiang and make reasoned arguments about the high unemployment rate among the Uyghur population there, about how the economic development which he acknowledges has taken place in the XUAR has left them behind, and about ethnic-Han in-migration contributing to these problems. The website (www.uighurbiz.net) which is at the heart of all the accusations against him was intended to be a platform for Xinjiang issues to be debated as a way of enhancing understanding between Han and Uyghur communities – for this, he has lost his political rights for life, as well as his liberty.

As soon as the South China Morning Post’s report of the verdict appeared and online comments were opened, out came the “fifty-cent party” of paid pro-CCP government commentators, or paid trolls as they may accurately be described, who went in a single short comment from eliding Tohti’s peaceful advocacy of Uyghurs’ legal rights with Islamicist terrorism to comparing him to Isis. That he could be convicted under Article 103 of the Criminal Law of “organizing, plotting or carrying out the scheme of splitting the State or undermining unity of the country” based on peaceful expression of his non-violent views is worrying enough, but to see him now casually branded a terrorist because he happens to be a Uyghur and a Muslim who discusses Xinjiang affairs is really frightening.

One reason for the harshness of the sentence is almost certainly Tohti’s specific criticism of XUAR chairman Nur Bekri back in March 2009, commenting that “I think he’s unqualified … I don’t know how he became governor of Xinjiang, and I don’t recognize him as a qualified governor” in an interview in which he talked about how Uyghurs had been left behind in Xinjiang’s development under Bekri’s leadership. Nur Bekri published an article earlier this year in the Xinjiang Daily attacking radical Islamist influences, which he summed up as “the banning of watching television, listen to the radio, reading newspapers, singing and dancing, not allowing laughter at weddings nor crying at funerals … They force men to grow beards and women to wear the burka.” If he really thinks that kind of Islam has anything whatsoever to do with the lives or preferences of the vast majority of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims, then “unqualified” is about the most polite thing you could call him.

The only reason for a slight increase (from very rare to marginally less rare) in women wearing the burka in Xinjiang, as an example, is because of Chinese authorities’ heavy-handed repression of women even wearing headscarves, a Uyghur tradition more than a Muslim one, or veils, and barring bearded men from government jobs or opening private businesses, along with other pointlessly offensive intrusions into normal Muslim practice like forcing students, on pain of expulsion, to eat lunch during Ramadan.

I will leave the last words to Ilham Tohti himself, speaking after sentencing from his detention centre in Xinjiang, where he reports that, now he knows his fate, he slept better than he has for the past eight months:

Peace is a gift from God to the Han and the Uyghur peoples, and we will only be able to work together for our common interests if we do so in peace… My aim was to cry out on behalf of our people, and even more for the future of China… I may be gone from view, but I will still have hope for a brighter future. I still firmly believe that China will improve, and that Uyghurs’ constitutional rights will be respected… I said what I wanted to say, and I hope that my case will help to advance the rule of law in Xinjiang, even if only a little.”

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork. She is a Regular Contributor to the CPI blog.