A Chinese court has sentenced Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur scholar, to a life in prison because he is guilty of "separatism," his lawyer told the BBC. Various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have condemned Tohti's sentence.
Uighurs are an ethnically Turkic group of Muslims who make up 45 percent of the population of Xinjiang, a western region of China. Forty percent of the population, meanwhile, is Han Chinese. The region has seen tension between the two groups since 1949, and an influx of Han Chinese to the area in more recent decades has caused Uighurs to fear they pose a threat to "traditional culture."
Tohti, an economics professor at Minzu University in Beijing and a member of the Communist Party, had criticized China's recent police efforts against Uighurs in Xianjiang, but stressed that Xianjiang should "remain part of China," and "frequently expressed revulsion against growing violence employed by Uighurs against the state," the BBC reports. Tohti's life sentence "is a message that amid the battle to contain Xinjiang's surging violence, there is no longer room in China for an outspoken moderate."
Amnesty International called the verdict "deplorable" and "an affront to justice," while the U.S. Embassy added that China should differentiate between "peaceful dissent and violent extremism." Today, The New York Times wrote that Tohti had "become the most visible symbol of peaceful resistance" of Uighurs.
Tohti's story may not be over yet, though — his lawyer told the BBC that he's planning to file an appeal. His last words in the courtroom? "I won't give in."