China defends life sentence for Uighur scholar

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BEIJING (AP) — China's state media released the first comprehensive report on evidence used to convict a prominent ethnic minority scholar of separatism and send him to prison for life, as top officials defended the harsh sentence amid criticism abroad.

In an account released a week after the closed-door trial, the official Xinhua News Agency said prosecutors had marshalled 210 pieces of evidence against Ilham Tohti, including a video of one of his lectures in which he purportedly said that the restive western Xinjiang region belongs to the Muslim Uighur people, not the Chinese majority Han.

The report late Wednesday also quoted the scholar as telling his students "I am not Chinese because I am a Uighur. My pride is that of greater Turkestan."

Xinhua reported that prosecutors also said the scholar publicized a fake opinion poll showing 12 percent of Uighurs supported separating from China and that his students had testified that he had forced separatist teachings on them.

Defense lawyer Li Fangping disputed the evidence cited in the Xinhua report and said some of it, including the quote about not being Chinese, was not even presented during the trial's two days of proceedings. Regarding the poll, he said his client had only referred to someone else's survey.

Foreign reporters were not allowed to attend the Beijing economics professor's trial in Xinjiang, where he was accused of fomenting separatist unrest. He was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison.

Known to many as a moderate mediator between the Uighur minority group and the ruling Han Chinese majority, Tohti's harsh sentence drew condemnation from rights groups and some governments abroad. President Barack Obama cited Ilham Tohti among several people rights groups call political prisoners and said they deserved to be freed.

Some foreign media cited a comparison originally made by a Chinese microblogger equating Ilham Tohti with Nelson Mandela, South Africa's long-imprisoned civil rights activist and later national leader. In an editorial Wednesday, Xinhua called that comparison "irritating" and said it reflected a wrongheaded notion of history.

Asked about the U.S. comments on the case, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that Chinese officials had formally protested to "some countries" about their remarks.

China's vice minister of state ethnic affairs, Luo Liming, called a news conference Thursday to describe the country's economic and social aid programs for its dozens of minority ethnic groups.

Luo said China was spending $5.5 billion over three years to build infrastructure, develop cutting-edge industries and otherwise raise the incomes of minority groups living in areas close to China's borders. He said the government was also helping build roads, electrical lines and other infrastructure for the country's 28 ethnic groups with less than 300,000 people.

When asked about the Ilham Tohti verdict, Luo said the court in Xinjiang had strictly followed Chinese law in handing down the life sentence.

"All people need to exercise their political and cultural lives based on the constitution and the state laws," Luo said. "His violation of state laws and being punished are not issues of whether his legitimate rights have been upheld or not. ... His sentencing has been carried out by the judiciary based on our state laws and regulations."

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