BEIJING — Seven minority students stood trial on separatism charges Tuesday for working on a website run by a prominent Muslim Uighur scholar convicted on the same charge in far western China, a rights lawyer said.
Li Fangping, a defense lawyer for the economics professor Ilham Tohti, said at least three students pleaded not guilty and the court was expected to issue its verdicts at a later date.
He said the students were certain to be found guilty by the same court that sentenced their teacher — known for his criticism of the government and its ethnic policy — to life imprisonment in September and accused the students of being members of the professor's criminal gang.
"The question is how many years these students will be jailed," Li said. "But we don't expect them to be jailed as long as their teacher."
Repeated calls to the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in Xinjiang were unanswered. The court also provided no information on the students' trials on its official website or social media accounts.
William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Amnesty International, said the government was going after the students as part of its persecution of Ilham Tohti.
The students were secretly taken into police custody earlier this year and were held incommunicado before several of them gave incriminating testimonials against the teacher on national television, raising concerns whether they were getting a fair trial, Nee said. Family members of the students also have been hushed, he said.
"The irregularities and abuse of law in this case has turned China's rule of law on its head," he said.
Li said the students were charged for their involvement with the Uighur Online website, which the government has shut down. Some also were accused of attending religious meetings in Hong Kong, Li said.
Ilham Tohti told the court earlier that he set up the website to give Uighur people a voice and help Han Chinese understand the ethnic minority, but the court ruled that the professor used the site to incite ethnic hatred and promote separatism.
At least three students — Perhat Halmurat, Shohret Nijat, and Luo Yuwei— have confessed on state television that, while working for Uighur Online, they were instructed by the professor to run articles that could exacerbate ethnic tensions. The other four students are Mutellip Imin, Abduqeyum Ablimit, Atikem Rozi and Akbar Imin. All students except Luo — a member of the Yi minority — are Uighurs.
Atikem Rozi had spoken out publicly about how the government had refused to issue her a passport — a common complaint among Uighurs.
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