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China Imprisons Dissident Xu Zhiyong, Announces Charges Against Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti

Ilham Tohti (left) and Xu Zhiyong (right).

Ilham Tohti (left) and Xu Zhiyong (right).

Over the weekend of January 25-26, the Chinese government sentenced human rights activist Xu Zhiyong (许志永) to four years in prison and announced its charges against detained Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti (Uighur: ئىلھام توختى‎, Chinese: 伊力哈木土赫提). Xu was sentenced following a one-day show trial in which in which he wasn’t allowed to call defense witnesses or complete his closing statements. Tohti’s highly questionable charges include separatist activities and advocating the use of violence to overthrow the Chinese government

Xu Zhiyong’s prison sentence was announced the morning of January 26. “This destroys the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system,” Xu told the court according to his lawyer, Zhang Qingfang. “He can still appeal,” said Zhang, “but this outcome was decided by the senior leaders, and there’s no hope of changing the verdict.”

Amnesty International issued a statement saying that Xu’s imprisonment “is a travesty and he should be released immediately.” Amnesty’s East Asia research director Roseann Rife commented: “This is a shameful but sadly predictable verdict. The Chinese authorities have once again opted for the rule of fear over the rule of law…. At best the injustice of prosecuting Xu Zhiyong is hypocrisy of the highest order.  On the surface his calls to expose corruption coincide with President Xi Jinping’s own much heralded clampdown…. But the message sent from the courtroom today runs far deeper: In Xi Jinping’s China the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on the political process and anyone that speaks out will be severely dealt with…. The persecution of those associated with the New Citizens’ Movement demonstrates how fearful the Chinese leadership are of public calls for change.”

Human Rights Watch also condemned Xu’s imprisonment. “The harsh sentence for a moderate critic who reflected widespread public concern about corruption shows just how little tolerance there is towards dissent in China today,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams, “Xi Jinping has made fighting corruption the linchpin of his presidency, but when an average citizen takes up the same cause, he is sent to prison. This hypocrisy makes a mockery of the president’s anti-corruption campaign.”

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing expressed “deep concern” regarding Xu’s conviction and repeated previous U.S. calls for his release. “We are concerned that today’s conviction is retribution for Xu’s public campaign to expose official corruption and for the peaceful expression of his views,” said an embassy spokesman, calling Xu’s conviction part of a pattern of repression against Chinese citizens who challenge their government. The U.S. State Department also issued a statement calling “on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, cease restrictions on their freedom of movement, and guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments.”

A European Union representative in China also said that Xu’s conviction “has heightened [the EU’s] concern at the situation being faced by a number of Chinese human rights defenders who have been prosecuted in relation to peaceful action against corruption and public advocacy of the law, transparency and social justice.”

China Digital Times has published leaked censorship instructions from the Chinese government to domestic media ordering the removal of all unofficial commentary on Xu’s case as well as statements by Xu himself. Censored Chinese microblog posts on Xu Zhiyong’s case may be found at FreeWeibo.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government announced its charges against Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti. According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, these charges include separatist activities and advocating the use of violence to overthrow the Chinese government. Given Tohti’s reputation as a moderate, these charges are highly suspect to say the very least. By all appearances, Tohti is being railroaded into what will likely be a much longer term in prison than that received by Xu Zhiyong. Uighur journalist and intellectual Gheyret Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2010 on similar and equally questionable charges.

Tohti’s wife, Guzaili Nu’er, said that the accusations against her husband are groundless. “I don’t know what they are talking about,” said Nu’er, “It is nonsense.” Nu’er also said that the family has not been informed of Tohti’s whereabouts and that family members are under round-the-clock surveillance by Chinese police. The United States and the European Union have both expressed concern regarding Tohti’s arrest. Censored Chinese microblog posts on Ilham Tohti’s case may be found at FreeWeibo.

As Xu Zhiyong remarked at his trial, China’s continuing arrests and convictions of dissidents and human rights activists on trumped-up charges have removed any remaining illusion of credibility from the Chinese legal system.



Mark C. Eades
Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades

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