11/27/2014, 00.00
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Xinjiang, seven university students on trial for collaborating with Ilham Tohti

The group had disappeared into thin air in January. The authorities claims they are guilty of aiding the Uighur professor to "foment separatism" through a website. Lawyer: "It was a platform for debate among China’s ethnic minorities”. They now risk from five to 15 years in prison.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - Authorities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang have put seven ethnic  Uighur college students on trial for being "connected" with Ilham Tohti. The professor, who is also  Uighur, was sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2014 on charges of separatism. Tohti has always rejected this ruling, and the final communiqué read in the courts reaffirmed his love for China and belief that the ethnic issue can only be resolved through dialogue.

Tohti was arrested last January, after criticizing Beijing's policy following the attack in Tiananmen Square, in October 2013, attributed to some  Uighurs. The government's response to the attack was the increase in the repression of the Xinjiang region. For years, Tohti, calls on the government to open a real dialogue with the Uighurs to understand their difficulties and in 2005 opened on the internet website Uighur Online, to meet Uighurs and Han (Chinese). According to the accusers is this site the test of "separatism" academician.

The arrested university students are charged with being "collaborators" on the website. Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping, confirms the facts but stresses that  Uighur Online "promotes dialogue and confrontation between the ethnic Muslim Chinese and other ethnic groups". The students, who disappeared after being taken into custody last January, now face five to 15 years in prison.

The province is one of the most turbulent in all of China. Its Uighur Muslim minority, who number about nine million, have long sought independence from China. The central government, for its part, has brought in hundreds of thousands of settlers to make Han Chinese the dominant ethnic group.  At the same time, it has severely curtailed Muslim religious worship as well as the teaching of the local language and culture.

Since 2009 Chinese police and the military have held the region under a special regime, which Beijing imposed following clashes that left nearly 200 people dead. As a result of various episodes of violence, hundreds of long prison sentences were imposed and dozens of death penalties were carried out.

Chinese authorities blame Muslim extremists for the wave of violence. Uighur exiles claim instead that Beijing is "exaggerating" the threat of Islamic terrorism to justify repression against indigenous Uighurs.  For Beijing, Uighurs are responsible for the recent spate of violent attacks, including the 1 March 2014 attack at the Kunming railway station by knives-wielding men that left 29 people dead and more than 150 wounded, and the 28 October 2013 incident when an SUV plunged into a crowd in Tiananmen Square, then burst into flames, killing three people. The government believes that separatists from the ethnic minority are behind the attack:  following investigations Tohti and his students were put on trial.


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