'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
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Wednesday, September 17, 2014
China begins trial of Ilham Tohti, Uighur scholar
'If the Chinese government was more reasonable Ilham Tohti could be one of their greatest allies — this is a peaceful, moderate, thoughtful scholar who has spent his whole life trying to find solutions to China’s ethnic tensions'
Chinese authorities began trying the Uighur academic Ilham Tohti on charges of “separatism” on Wednesday morning, in what human rights groups have called a “travesty of justice” that underscores the government’s unwillingness to field even moderate criticisms of its ethnic policies.
Tohti, 44, is being tried at the Urumqi intermediate court in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, more than 1,800 miles (3,000km) west of his home in Beijing. He will almost certainly be convicted; possible sentences range from 10 years to life in prison. He firmly denies the charge. According to Tohti’s lawyers Liu Xiaoming and Li Fangping, the trial will last two days, with sentencing at a later date.
Tohti, a former economics professor at the prestigious Minzu University of China in Beijing, was arrested in January and charged with separatism in July. His lawyers Liu Xiaoming and Li Fangping claim that he was shackled in prison, and denied access to food and warm clothes. “He said he is still in leg irons. Urumqi is already cold but he is still wearing short sleeves and he has fallen ill. He has not been given the clothes his family sent to him,” Li told Reuters after meeting with Tohti on Monday.
Photos posted online showed the courthouse surrounded by police and adjacent roads sealed off with tape and construction barriers. Nine western diplomats, including from Britain, Canada, Germany and the US, were barred from the courtroom. The US government and European Union have expressed “concern” about the charges and called for Tohti’s release.
Xinjiang, a massive north-western region bordering several central Asian states, has seen an explosion of ethnic violence in recent months — mainly mass stabbings, bombings and vehicular attacks perpetrated by Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim group of eight million, against majority Han Chinese.
Communist authorities have blamed the violence on Islamic fundamentalists and independence-seeking terrorist groups, and have responded by inundating the region with a military-style show of force. Uighur activists call the attacks a reflection of homegrown grievances, including severe cultural and religious restrictions. They say that the crackdown has only exacerbated the region’s ethnic divide.
“Among outspoken Uighurs, Tohti is one of the few that are not calling for independence — he’s not connected to independence organisations,” said Eliot Sperling, a professor at Indiana University who knew Tohti. “At the same time he has been scrupulously forthright about what’s going on in Xinjiang — repression on the basis of nationality, and repression on the basis of religion, and calling for investigations into the truth behind government actions there.”
Prison guards have kept Tohti in leg irons since 9 August after a “quarrel” with his cell mates, his lawyers have said. Authorities denied him food for 10 days in March after a band of knife-wielding Uighurs executed a brutal terror attack at a southern Chinese train station. His wife, Guzailai Nu’er, and two young sons have not been allowed to visit him in prison.
Tohti’s lawyers say the evidence against him includes dozens of articles and interviews with foreign media that touch on separatism, and 52 DVDs, some of which contain his university lectures. Seven people with connections to the academic, including some of his former students, have also been detained.
In a statement Human Rights Watch called the trial a “travesty of justice” and a “disturbing example of politicised show trials and intolerance for peaceful criticism”.
Tohti moved to Beijing in 1985 and began teaching at the university in the early 90s. He is perhaps best known in Uighur communities as the host of Uighur Online, a bilingual Uighur-Chinese online forum that encouraged candid debate about the government’s regional policies. Authorities blocked the site in mid-2008. Tohti’s name is currently censored on social media websites.
Authorities have accused Tohti of playing a role in inciting numerous violent incidents, including a “terror attack” near the desert city Kashgar last spring which killed 21 people, and an attack on a police station in Lukqun, a nearby town of 30,000 people, that left dozens of people dead last June.
“I would think in general, one of the tragedies of this whole situation is that if the Chinese government was more reasonable Ilham Tohti could be one of their greatest allies — this is a peaceful, moderate, thoughtful scholar who has spent his whole life trying to find solutions to China’s ethnic tensions,” said Katy Glenn Bass, the deputy director of free expression programmes at the New York-based PEN American Centre.
“What they’re doing with this trial is showing that no criticism, no matter how peaceful or moderate, will be tolerated.” PEN America announced Tohti as the winner of its most prestigious award, the PEN/ Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, on 1 April, and his 20 year-old daughter Jewher Ilham, a student at Indiana University, accepted it for him in absentia the following month. China’s foreign ministry condemned the award for interfering with the country’s “judicial sovereignty and independence”.
“I am heartbroken to see my father treated this way but I am also very proud of him,” Jewher said, according to a statement by PEN America. “My father wanted Uighurs and Han Chinese to work together for peace and equality, and never advocated violence or separatism. While I know it is unlikely, I am hopeful that my country – his country – will recognise the value of my father’s work and spare him from years in prison.”
Nu’er was allowed to attend the trial along with three other family members, but said that state security had her under constant surveillance. “They follow me everywhere, they are outside my brother’s house as I speak,” she told Agence France-Presse. “I’m worried about [Tohti’s] health, he has heart and stomach troubles, and he hasn’t been allowed to visit a hospital.”
The crises of Party culture become clear with a single glance. The CPC is called the ruling party, yet it operates according to secret party rules: this is an identity crisis. Its formal ceremonies and slogans are like those of an extremist church, and it has long lost its utopian doctrine that stirred the passion of the people: this is an ideological crisis. It tells beautiful lies while accepting bribes and keeping mistresses: this is a moral crisis. The totalitarian system is in the process of collapsing, yet political reform is not in the foreseeable future: this is a political crisis. It has corrupted traditional values and also rejected universal values, rendering Party members and government officials at a spiritual loss: this is a crisis of values.