BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese prosecutors on Wednesday charged a prominent ethnic Uighur academic with separatism following his detention earlier this year, sparking renewed international calls for his release.
Prosecutors in the far western Xinjiang region filed the motion with a court in the city of Urumqi, according to their official account on Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Prosecutors said they "instituted proceedings at the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court against defendant Ilham Tohti who is suspected of separatism".
Tohti, who taught at a university in Beijing, has been a vocal critic of the government's policies toward his mostly Muslim Uighur minority, who are concentrated in Xinjiang. His lawyer Li Fangping could not immediately be reached for comment.
Chinese police detained the outspoken economics professor in January. His detention has prompted condemnation from the United States, European Union and international rights groups including Amnesty International.
Following Wednesday's development, Washington renewed calls for his release.
"We are concerned about reports that China has indicted prominent economics professor Ilham Tohti," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters, adding "we call on Chinese authorities to release" Tohti and six students held with him.
The move to file charges comes as China is engaged in a crackdown over a series of violent attacks that Beijing blames on religious extremists and "terrorists" seeking independence for the region. Such violence has grown more frequent over the last year and has even spilled outside the vast resource-rich region.
Beijing has blamed militants from Xinjiang for an attack in Urumqi that killed 31 people in May, and for a March stabbing spree at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming in which 29 people died. Rights groups and many analysts and academics counter that the cause of the unrest can be found in state cultural and religious repression of Uighurs. In June, attorney Mr Li said that Tohti was denied food for a period of 10 days in March during which he was given a single glass of water.
Ms Harf added that the United States was "particularly concerned about the lack of transparency concerning his welfare and access to legal representation".
Chinese authorities should also guarantee Tohti and his students the "protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China's international human rights commitments."