Beijing: A court on Tuesday sentenced a prominent scholar from China`s mostly-Muslim Uighur minority to life in prison for "separatism", an unusually harsh sentence for a long-time yet moderate critic of Beijing`s policies in the restive Xinjiang region.
The United States, the European Union, and several human rights groups have called for the release of Ilham Tohti. Analysts say his prosecution risks silencing moderate Uighur voices and cutting off the possibility of dialogue.
Tohti, a former university professor and advocate for minority rights in the vast western region, will certainly appeal the sentence passed by a court in Xinjiang`s capital Urumqi, Li Fangping, one of his lawyers, told AFP.
Tohti, 44, said he "did not agree" with the sentence as it was announced but was not allowed to make any further statement before being led out by court officials, Li said, adding that the court will "confiscate his entire property".
Tohti`s wife cried loudly after the verdict was read and "was so upset she couldn`t walk," he added.
The Xinjiang region is home to about 10 million members of the Uighur minority, and in the last year has been hit by a string of attacks on civilians and clashes which have killed at least 200 people.
China blames unrest on organised militant groups seeking independence for Xinjiang. Rights groups say that discrimination and government repression of the Uighurs` religion and language has fuelled violence.
Tohti was detained in January after he criticised the government`s response to a suicide car attack last October in Beijing`s Tiananmen Square, which the government blamed on separatists from Xinjiang.
Chinese courts are controlled by the ruling Communist party, which tightly limits public dissent, and appeals in criminal cases are rarely successful.
China has cracked down on dissent under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, with dozens of academics, journalists and activists detained or jailed -- though Tohti`s is the heaviest sentence handed out to a dissident in years.
"Ilham Tohti`s sentence is extremely harsh, it`s unexpected and it`s shocking," said Maya Wang, a researcher for US-based group Human Rights Watch.
"For someone like Tohti, who is prominent and known outside China, to be given a life sentence for very measured criticism, that is unprecedented," she added. "It`s a sign of just how much the Chinese government`s intolerance of dissent has deepened."
Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, said the verdict was "a very bad signal for Han-Uighur relations," referring to the Han ethnic group who are the overwhelming majority in China.
"It certainly reflects the values and the style of the Xi Jinping administration, that it wanted to pose itself as a strong government ready to crack down on any dissidents and opposition," he added.
Tohti spoke out against independence for Xinjiang in interviews and was seen as a moderate voice on Uighur issues but was repeatedly subject to house arrest and prevented from leaving the country.
He went on trial last week and was denied food and kept in shackles for weeks at a time during his detention, his lawyers said.
Tohti`s detention prompted an outcry from human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as overseas groups run by Uighurs.
"This shameful judgement has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished through politically motivated charges," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.
State prosecutors presented the court with a large amount of material, including videos of Tohti`s university lectures and posts from his website "Uighur Online", as evidence that he had led a separatist group, Li said.
They also included testimony from some of Tohti`s students, around eight of whom have also been detained.
The official Xinhua news agency said the court heard that Tohti "spread lessons containing separatist thoughts via the website, Uygur Online".
"He bewitched and coerced young ethnic students to work for the website and built a criminal syndicate, according to the ruling," it said, adding he also incited violence.
In a closing statement at his trial Tohti said he loved his country and in his opinion "it has always been that it is in the best interests of Uighurs to remain in China", according to Li.
In a 2011 essay, Tohti wrote: "I earnestly hope that my homeland can become as prosperous and developed as the rest of China. I worry about my homeland and my country falling into chaos and division."