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Jailed Uyghur scholar insists innocence after hunger strike

Ilham Tohti, pictured here in June 12, 2010, was arrested and taken to Urumqi in January this year.

Story highlights

  • Detained Uyghur scholar meets with lawyer for the first time in months
  • Ilham Tohti, was denied food for 10 days while being held by authorities, says his lawyer
  • His starvation period began after the March 1 attack in Kunming

A prominent Uyghur scholar arrested by Chinese authorities for "separatist activities" has maintained his innocence from jail as his lawyer was allowed to meet him for the first time in months. 

Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing's Minzu University, was detained by police in January and taken to his native Xinjiang, China's restive far-western region where a spate of recent violent incidents have been blamed by the government on Uyghur separatists. 

Li Fangping, Tohti's lawyer, saw him Thursday in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, and learned that his client was put in shackles for three weeks upon arrival at the jail. 

"He went on a hunger strike for some 10 days in January after they refused to provide him with Muslim food," Li told CNN on Friday. "They also denied him food for about 10 days in March after the Kunming incident." 

On March 1, alleged Uyghur separatists stabbed 29 people to death at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming.

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"He looked okay but said he lost 16 kilograms and complained about ailments throughout the body, including in the liver, heart and eyes," Li added.

    The lawyer had feared that Tohti received a secret trial and heavy sentencing. Li describes himself as "slightly more optimistic" after Thursday's meeting and plans to push for more access to his client.

    Although a trial date remains unknown, Li said Tohti emphasized that he has never supported separatism.

    "He reiterated that he has advocated to improve the rule of law, democracy and ethnic harmony in Xinjiang," Li said.

    CNN's repeated phone calls Friday to the Xinjiang government spokesman went unanswered.

    READ: Xinjiang and tensions in China's restive far west

    Vocal critic

    Tohti is known for his research on Uyghur-Han relations and has been a vocal critic of the government's ethnic policies in Xinjiang, a resource-rich region long inhabited by the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uyghurs. The arrival of waves of Han, China's predominant ethnic group, over the past decades has fueled ethnic tensions.

    Some Uyghurs have expressed resentment toward the Han majority in recent years over what they describe as harsh treatment from Chinese security forces and loss of economic opportunities to Han people in Xinjiang.

    Amnesty International has said that Uyghurs face widespread discrimination in employment, housing and educational opportunities, as well as curtailed religious freedom and political marginalization. Other critics, including exiled Uyghur activists, have attributed the rise of violence in Xinjiang to Beijing's increasingly repressive rule there -- a claim the government vehemently denies.

    In the region's deadliest violent incident in recent history, a suicide bombing last month killed 39 people at a street market in Urumqi. Another apparent suicide bombing left three dead in April at an Urumqi train station.

    The Chinese government has responded by launching a massive anti-terrorism campaign as well as pouring more economic resources into Xinjiang 

    Executions

    Last week, China executed 13 people convicted of terrorism charges related to attacks on public places in Xinjiang in recent months, state media reported. The same day, a court in Urumqi sentenced three people to death for their roles in a deadly attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square last October. Defendant names revealed by state media all sounded Uyghur.

    "Repression plus economic incentives -- that has continued to be the government response," said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Economic development and job opportunities are important to the Uyghurs, but these things must be done in a way that respects their culture and freedom of expression.

    "Unfortunately, the government is more interested in projecting what it wishes to do in Xinjiang rather than looking at what the real problems and ethnic grievances are in the region."

    READ: Three death sentences for Tiananmen Square attackers