China rejects Uighur scholar's appeal against life sentence

University professor, blogger, and member of the Muslim Uighur minority, Ilham Tohti.

BEIJING - A Chinese court Friday rejected prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti's appeal against his life sentence for separatism as veteran former journalist Gao Yu was set to face trial for leaking "state secrets".

Rights groups have decried both cases as an effort to silence prominent critics of the ruling Communist Party.

Tohti, a 44-year-old economics professor, has been an outspoken critic of China's policies towards the mostly Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, which has been hit by a wave of violence in the past year which has killed at least 200 people.

China blames unrest on militant groups seeking independence for the region. Rights groups say discrimination and government repression of the Uighurs' religion and language has fuelled violence.

Tohti's lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan told AFP that that the scholar had pronounced the verdict as "unjust".

"He maintains that his behaviour has not endangered state security," Liu said. "He is still upholding his point of view. Anti-violence and anti-separatism have been his beliefs all along." He added that Tohti's brother and sister had attended the hearing in Xinjiang, and that the scholar was still being forced to wear leg shackles when he visited him at a detention centre earlier this week.

The case against Tohti was in part based on recordings of university lectures in which he said that Xinjiang "firstly belonged to the Uighur ethnic group", rather than China's Han majority, the state-run Xinhua news agency has reported.

Crackdown on dissent

Rejection of his appeal came as former reporter Gao was set to stand trial in Beijing in a case rights groups described as an attack on freedom of expression.

Gao, 70, went missing in April and was detained in May on suspicion of "providing state secrets to sources outside China".

A well-known journalist who was named one of the International Press Institute's 50 "world press heroes" in 2000, her political writings have landed her in prison in the past.

But she currently faces a potential life sentence reportedly in connection with the 2013 leaking of an internal Communist Party communique calling for a harsh crackdown on dissent and warning against such "perils" as democracy and universal values.

China under President Xi Jinping is in the midst of a campaign against dissent that activists have called the harshest such crackdown in decades, with hundreds of lawyers, scholars and journalists rounded up.

Outside the Beijing No. 3 Intermediate People's Court, where Gao's trial is being conducted in secret, about a dozen uniformed and plainclothes police were checking ID cards and preventing reporters from approaching the building.

Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, called Gao's case "a frontal assault on the freedom of expression and access to information".

"State secrets laws have been a perfect weapon for prosecuting activists and whistleblowers like Gao Yu," she said.

"Internal Communist Party ideological directives mandating further restrictions on free expression cannot be legitimately protected by state secrecy laws," she added.

In May, Gao was paraded on state-run China Central Television in a televised "confession" that her lawyer later said was coerced following threats to Gao's son.