BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court in the restive western region of Xinjiang has given a Uighur journalist and website manager 15 years in jail for endangering state security by speaking to foreign journalists, his employer said on Friday.
Uighurbiz.net, where Gheyret Niyaz worked as an administrator, posted a notice saying he had been sentenced at a hearing on Friday, quoting his wife who was in the court.
“Gheyret Niyaz admitted in court that he accepted interviews from foreign media, but insisted that he had no malicious intentions and was only doing what a citizen, or reporter, should do,” his wife Reshalaiti was quoted as saying.
Niyaz has a right to appeal under Chinese law, the statement added, without saying whether he would exercise that right.
The Xinjiang government declined comment when contacted by telephone from Beijing.
The sentence is unusually long for someone who has a low international profile and apparently did not face charges of separatism or violent extremism. China says it faces a threat from radical groups fighting for Xinjiang independence.
When well-known dissident Liu Xiaobo was given an 11-year sentence for subversion last Christmas Day, rights groups roundly condemned that as harsh.
Gheyret Niyaz was one of a number of Uighur journalists, webmasters and bloggers detained after ethnic unrest in energy-rich Xinjiang in July 2009, according to the Uyghur American Association.
Nearly 200 people died in violence that exploded across the regional capital, Urumqi, after a protest by the minority Turkic Uighurs, who have called the region home for centuries but fear they are being marginalized by Han Chinese.
Most of the dead from the first night of violence were Han Chinese killed by Uighur mobs, but Han gangs seeking vengeance turned on Uighurs in the following days, causing fresh deaths.
“Though this is an individual case, the sentence shows that any Uighur can be threatened for talking about the situation in Xinjiang with a reporter,” Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said by telephone.
Niyaz, who also worked as a journalist for the Xinjiang Economic Daily, was regarded as broadly supportive of Chinese government policy by overseas Uighurs, who were surprised by his detention, the Uyghur American Association said.
But he criticized economic inequalities and parts of a campaign against “separatism.”
Uighurs say bloggers and website managers were a particular target during a wider crackdown that has also upset some Chinese on the other side of the ethnic divide.
“As an ordinary Han person, I think that Gheyret was not guilty and the accusation was totally unreasonable. Maybe what he did wasn’t exactly great, but it was totally in line with what a responsible citizen should do,” said the only comment after the report on Uighurbiz.net.
China blocked off the Internet, text messaging and most international calls as it tried to reassert control after the violence and only restored full Internet access in May.
The string of detentions also decimated the small but previously thriving Uighur online community.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski