BEIJING — An outspoken Chinese minority scholar was indicted on separatism charges amid a renewed flare-up of bloody anti-government violence in the country’s far west.
The prosecutor’s office in the Xinjiang regional capital of Urumqi announced the indictment of economics professor Ilham Tohti in a brief online statement Wednesday.
Tohti was detained in mid-January and later accused of separatism. Through his lawyer, he has firmly rejected accusations of advocating Xinjiang’s independence from China. Such charges almost always end in conviction and a sentence of up to several years in prison.
Tohti is widely considered a moderate but vocal proponent of equal rights for the Turkic Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) ethnic minority in Xinjiang. Many Uighurs say they face repressive cultural and religious policies along with economic disenfranchisement in their homeland.
The indictment was condemned by Human Rights Watch, the PEN American Center writers group and others, which warned that squelching moderate Uighur voices could worsen tensions in the region.
“The Chinese government appears determined to silence Uighurs like Tohti, who for years has tried to peacefully express Uighurs’ legitimate grievances and advocate peaceful solutions,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Demonizing moderates like Tohti won’t bring peace to the region.”
Tohti was originally accused of recruiting followers through a website he founded to allegedly manufacture rumors, distort and play-up incidents, spread separatist thoughts, incite ethnic hatred and engage in separatist activities.
He is also accused of telling his students that minority Uighurs should emulate Chinese who violently resisted Japanese invaders in World War II, and of teaching them to hate China and seek to overthrow the government.
Calls to Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping, rang unanswered Wednesday night.
Such sentiments are seen as contributing to a recent increase in violence in Xinjiang blamed on Uighur militants that has also spread to Beijing and the western province of Yunnan.
On Monday, the government said rampaging militants armed with knives and axes killed or injured dozens of people in Shache county near the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang’s far west. Official reports said police killed dozens of the assailants, who reportedly first attacked police and government offices before turning on civilians. More details haven’t been released and the precise death toll remains unknown.
China called the incident a “premeditated terror attack,” and said further investigations were underway. If dozens were indeed killed, it would be the bloodiest single outbreak of violence since ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009 left nearly 200 dead, according to the government.
The official account of Monday’s incident has been disputed by a Uighur group based in the US, where many Uighurs live.
The Uyghur American Association said police killed protesters angered by heavy-handed security measures taken during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which ended this week.
Neither version could be independently confirmed, and calls to police stations and government offices in the area rang unanswered Wednesday. A telephone operator in Shache said mobile communications and the Internet were being cut off, but declined to give details or her name.
Obtaining details of violence in the remote region is usually impossible and authorities routinely prevent foreign journalists from working freely in the area.
While some of the recent violent attacks have shown an increased level of sophistication and planning, most have relied on crude weaponry such as swords, bombs and homemade explosives.
China’s government says the militants have ties to overseas Islamic terror groups, although it has provided little evidence to back up its claim.
Also known as Yarkant, Shache is near the border with the unstable Central Asian states, about 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) west of Beijing.