Exile group calls on China to release Uighur academic charged with separatism

BEIJING (AFP) - An Uighur exile group on Thursday demanded the immediate release of a scholar charged with separatism in China, saying the decision to prosecute him was political in nature.

"We demand China immediately correct its mistaken methods and release Ilham Tohti," Mr Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) said in an e-mail.

Mr Raxit said that China's accusation against Tohti was a "complete political decision" and not based on law.

Prosecutors in the far western Xinjiang region on Wednesday announced they were charging Tohti with separatism following his detention earlier this year, sparking renewed international calls for his release. A conviction of separatism in China can be punished by death.

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.

Also Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the charges against Tohti "deeply disturbing" in a statement.

"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," Ms Sophie Richardson, HRW's China director, said in the statement.

"It sends precisely the wrong signal to Uighurs when tensions are at an all-time high."

The charges come as China is cracking down over a series of violent attacks that blames on religious extremists and "terrorists" seeking independence for the region.

Such violence has grown more frequent over the last year and has occurred in areas far beyond Xinjiang.

China blames 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.

The United States on Wednesday called on China to free Tohti, whose detention had earlier sparked expressions of concern from the Washington, the European Union and global campaign groups including Amnesty International.

"The Chinese government appears determined to silence Uighurs like Tohti, who for years has tried to peacefully express Uighurs' legitimate grievances and advocate peaceful solutions," HRW's Ms Richardson said.

"Demonising moderates like Tohti won't bring peace to the region."