BEIJING (REUTERS) - A prominent ethnic Uighur professor from China's Xinjiang region could be tried on separatism charges within weeks, his lawyer said on Thursday, in a case that has attracted concern over judicial and human rights abuses.
China on Wednesday formally indicted Ilham Tohti, an economist who has championed the rights of the Muslim Uighur community from the region, which has been beleaguered by violence and ethnic tension.
The case has attracted high-level concern in the United States and European Union and is seen by rights groups as part of China's crackdown on dissent in Xinjiang, where tension between Uighurs and majority Han Chinese has led to outbursts of violence.
Beijing police detained Tohti in January and later took him to the Xinjiang capital Urumqi, where he was accused of promoting and supporting the region's independence from China.
The Urumqi prosecutor said in a statement on its microblog on Wednesday that Tohti's case had been turned over to a city court, which his lawyer said violated legal procedures.
Defence lawyer Li Fangping said prosecutors ignored written and verbal requests for court material and had not notified lawyers or family when the case was turned over to the court. "They have not given us any formal response and they have not heard our legal defence opinions. They directly sent it to the Urumqi Intermediate Court. This is fundamentally a violation of law," Li told Reuters. "It was extremely unexpected. The prosecutors are neglecting the rights of legal defence," Li said.
Li said if the court moved quickly, the case could be heard some time in August and it was unclear if he would be allowed to attend.
Tohti has denied the separatism charges he faces, serious allegations that carry a maximum punishment of death. The Communist Party tightly controls courts and guilty verdicts in such cases are typically a foregone conclusion.
Tohti, who teaches at Beijing's Minzu University, which specialises in ethnic minority studies, has said he never associated with any terrorist organisation or foreign-based group and has "relied only on pen and paper to diplomatically request" human rights and legal rights for Uighurs.
Tohti's supporters say he has challenged the government's version of several incidents involving Uighurs by pointing out inconsistencies. That includes what China says was its first major suicide attack, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in October.
"I really can't take it. How could they do this? They didn't even notify his family," Tohti's wife, Guzailai Nu'er, said of the handling of the case. "My husband didn't do any of these things. He is a university professor. He teaches," she said by telephone.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang over the past year, including some police, according to state media.
The government blames incidents in Xinjiang and across the country on Islamist separatists, who, it says, want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
Activists say the government's repressive policies, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest. Beijing denies that.
The announcement on Tohti's case came as security forces flooded parts of southern Xinjiang, after the government said dozens of knife-wielding attackers were shot dead this week.
The government has yet to give a toll or a full account of what happened in Shache county, 200km from the old Silk Road city of Kashgar. Witnesses told Reuters unrest appeared to have spread by Wednesday to Kashgar, with police pouring into the city and roads being closed.
"The decision to indict on such a serious charge a man like Ilham Tohti, who is known for trying to bridge divides, shows how far China's human rights have deteriorated in the past months," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in an emailed statement. "It sends precisely the wrong signal to Uighurs when tensions are at an all-time high."