BEIJING: Outraged Western powers have rounded on China over a life sentence handed to a prominent Uighur academic, accusing Beijing of silencing a moderate voice in a move that analysts say risks inflaming tensions in the restive Xinjiang region.
A court in China’s far western Xinjiang region on Tuesday sentenced Ilham Tohti—a persistent but moderate government critic who advocated for the rights of the mostly-Muslim Uighur minority—to life in prison on charges of “separatism.”
The decision was seen as unusually harsh—it also includes depriving Tohti of political rights for life and the confiscation of his personal property—and comes amid a broader crackdown on what the state claims is a terror-backed independence movement in Xinjiang.
The sentencing of the 44-year old father of three drew strong condemnation from the United States and European Union (EU), with both calling for his release.
The White House urged Chinese authorities to differentiate between “peaceful dissent and violent extremism.”
“We believe that civil society leaders like Ilham Tohti play a vital role in reducing the sources of inter-ethnic tension in China, and should not be persecuted for peacefully expressing their views,” the White House press secretary said in a statement.
The EU called the sentence “completely unjustified” and urged his immediate and unconditional release.
Foreign analysts were puzzled by the verdict, saying none of Tohti’s writings or comments advocated a Uighur breakaway from China. They warned of a further rise in tensions in Xinjiang, which has been hit by a string of attacks on civilians and clashes which have killed at least 200 people in the last year.
“I think most observers of Xinjiang and Uighur issues will be very disheartened by this as it seems likely to add fuel to the fire of conflict in Xinjiang,” Michael Clarke, an authority on Xinjiang at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, told Agence France-Presse.