BEIJING - A Chinese court handed down sentences of up to eight years in prison to seven students of jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti in China's western Xinjiang region, two rights lawyers said on Tuesday, in a case that has been criticised by the West.
Tohti, China's most prominent advocate for the rights of Muslim Uighurs, lost his appeal against a life sentence for separatism in November.
During his trial, he rejected the prosecution's evidence and said statements against him by student volunteers who had worked on a website he managed were made under pressure.
Li Fangping, the lawyer who defended Tohti, said he was told by the students' lawyer on Monday that they had been sentenced by the intermediate court in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi. Prosecutors had charged the students with separatism, Li said. "Yesterday, we received information of (sentences) between three and eight years," Li told Reuters by telephone. "It's unclear what condition they are in. It is also unclear if they will appeal." Liu Xiaoyuan, another lawyer who defended Tohti, confirmed the sentences. A court official contacted about the case declined to comment.
China's courts lack independence from the ruling Communist Party, and appeals in such cases are typically rejected. In severe cases, charges of separatism are punishable by death.
The seven students were separated into two trials in November, one conducted for in Chinese and a second held in the Uighur language for a single student.
China has blamed a series of violent attacks in which hundreds of people have been killed in recent years on Islamist militants from Xinjiang who it says want to establish an independent state there called East Turkestan.
China has made no mention of the cases and has not provided names of the students, many of whom had been detained since January. However, rights groups have identified the students.
The Global Times, a tabloid run by the party's official People's Daily, said six of the students, Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Nijat, Mutellip Imin, Abduqeyyum Ablimit, Atikem Rozi and Akbar Imin, are Uighur. The seventh student, Luo Yuwei, is from the Yi ethnic minority, the paper said.
The United States has called for the release of Tohti and his students.
Prosecutors said Tohti had "bewitched and coerced young ethnic students" on the website he ran called Uighurbiz.net. The economics professor said he never associated with any terrorist organisation and "relied only on pen and paper" to advocate for Uighurs' rights.