BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese authorities held a prominent Uighur academic in leg irons for 20 days and forced him to go without food, his lawyer said on Thursday, after seeing his client for the first time since he was arrested more than five months ago.
Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing’s Minzu University who has championed the rights of the Muslim Uighur people in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, was detained in January and subsequently charged with separatism.
His case has attracted high-level concern in the United States and European Union and is seen by rights groups as part of China’s crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang. There are deep tensions between indigenous ethnic groups and majority Han Chinese immigrants in the region, and sporadic outbreaks of violence.
Tohti’s lawyer, Li Fangping, said his client, despite being placed in leg irons for 20 days, maintained his innocence after months of incommunicado detention.
“Because he eats halal food there was a dispute. He went on a hunger strike for 10 days in January,” Li told Reuters by telephone from Xinjiang where Tohti is being held.
After a deadly attack at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in March, which the government blamed on separatist militants from Xinjiang, authorities denied Tohti food for another eight days.
“For eight days he didn’t eat anything. He lost 16 kilograms. On the tenth day he was given a bun. Restricting his food constitutes a form of abuse,” Li said, adding that he had worries about Tohti’s physical condition and that his state of mind was “very anxious”.
“He is very persistent. He has always maintained his innocence,” Li said.
Reuters was unable to contact the jail in the Xinjiang regional capital Urumqi for comment.
Advocates for Tohti say he has challenged the government’s version of several incidents involving Uighurs by pointing out inconsistencies in official accounts. That includes what China says was its first major suicide attack, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October. “He hoped to unite Uighur interests and national interests. None of his speech was in support of separatism,” Li added.
Exiled Uighur groups and rights activists say the government’s own repressive policies in Xinjiang, including restrictions on Islam, have stoked unrest - a claim Beijing strongly denies.
The Chinese government blames a spate of bloody incidents across the country on Islamist separatists, who, it says, want to establish an independent state in Xinjiang called East Turkestan.
State media said on Thursday authorities in Xinjiang had jailed nine more people for up to 14 years for terror-related offences at a public sentencing in front of more than 3,000 people.
The government of Qapqal county, close to the border with Kazakhstan, also announced arrest warrants for 25 people and the detention of 14 others, the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said on its website on Thursday.
The crimes they have been found guilty of or are suspected of include calling for holy war, attending overseas terror training camps, separatism and fanning ethnic hatred, the newspaper said, citing the Qapqal government.
It did not identify their ethnicities, though the region is home to a sizeable Kazakh minority, like the Uighurs a Muslim people.
The event appeared to take place on a sports field, judging by a picture posted by the newspaper. The attendees included relatives and neighbors of those sentenced and religious figures, it added.
“Clearly recognize who is our enemy and who are brothers and sisters,” Li Wei, the deputy Communist Party chief of Qapqal county, was quoted as saying. “Resolutely smash the evil plots of the enemy.”
State media last month reported on another mass sentencing in front of a crowd of 7,000 at a sports stadium in Yining city in Xinjiang’s northern prefecture of Yili.
Around 200 people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year or so, the government says, including 13 people shot dead by police in an attack on a police station last weekend.
At least 380 people have been detained in the last month in a sweeping crackdown in Xinjiang.
Editing by Andrew Roche