On December 8, 2014, sources reported that a Chinese criminal court had sentenced seven students of Professor Ilham Tohti to three to eight years in prison, after they had been found guilty of separatism. Professor Tohti, an economics professor and advocate for the rights of the Chinese Uighur minority, received a life sentence in late November 2014, also on separatism charges.
Professor Tohti’s students were arrested in January 2014, along with Professor Tohti. Following their arrest, the students were reportedly held incommunicado for roughly eight months. The students were first heard from publicly after three of them reportedly recorded statements, taken in the jail where they were detained, incriminating Professor Tohti, which were played by the prosecution during Professor Tohti’s two day trial on September 16-17. The statements were broadcast on national television on September 25. In the statements, the students claimed that, through his now defunct website Uighur Online, Professor Tohti had sought to stir ethnic tensions and build anti-government sentiment, and that he had threatened one student with reprisals if the student did not continue doing design work for the website. Human rights groups have expressed concern that the students’ statements were the product of coercion. The seven students were tried in late November 2014, but reports are unclear as to when the verdict was formally announced, or when the court actually imposed sentences on the students. Reports further indicate that the three students who testified against Professor Tohti received shorter sentences.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the detention and prosecution of students, apparently as a result of nonviolent expression and association– conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State officials have a responsibility not to interfere with students’ rights to freedom of expression and association, so long as such rights are exercised peacefully and responsibly. Imprisonment and prosecution aimed at limiting expression and association – particularly when they target the relationship of a professor and his or her students – undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally. State officials have an obligation to comply with internationally recognized standards of due process, fair trial, free expression and freedom of association.
UPDATE: On March 31, 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that a Chinese government list of prisoners leaked in December 2021 indicated that six of the seven students detained were sentenced in December 2014 to between three-and-a-half and eight years in prison. It is unclear whether they have been released.