Students of Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on trial in China

In this 4 Feb 2013 file photo, Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar of China's Uighur minority, speaks during an interview at his home in Beijing, China. Image copyright AP
Image caption Tohti was jailed in September for separatism

Seven university students linked to jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti have reportedly gone on trial in China's westernmost province of Xinjiang.

Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in September for separatism and fanning ethnic tensions.

The students are accused of contributing to a website run by Tohti on Uighurs.

Tohti's sentencing was condemned by human rights groups, the White House and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The BBC's Celia Hatton in Beijing says the trial is so secret that even the Xinjiang court will not confirm the proceedings.

Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping, told the BBC that the students contributed to Uighur Online, a now defunct website run by their teacher that promoted discussion between Uighurs and other ethnic groups in China.

The authorities, however, claim the site advocated Xinjiang's independence.

Mr Li, who was speaking on behalf of the students' lawyer so as to protect his counterpart, said the students face between five to 15 years in prison.

The students disappeared after being taken into police custody last January, then resurfaced later giving testimonials on national television incriminating Tohti.

Release demanded

The trial follows last week's rejection of a court appeal lodged by Tohti against his sentence.

Tohti was known as an outspoken critic of the Chinese government's treatment of the Uighur minority, who largely live in Xinjiang.

His conviction and sentencing sparked concern from international observers including the US. Both Mr Kerry and the White House called for Mr Tohti's immediate release.

China has been grappling with a spate of violent public attacks this year, which authorities have attributed to Uighur extremists inspired or aided by overseas terror groups.

In response it has launched a crackdown, arresting and jailing scores of people for terrorism activities. Several have been sentenced to death.

But Uighur activists say that China's strong-armed tactics in Xinjiang - including cultural and religious repression - are fuelling tensions.

Uighurs and Xinjiang

Image copyright AP
  • Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims
  • They make up about 45% of the region's population; 40% are Han Chinese
  • China re-established control in 1949 after crushing short-lived state of East Turkestan
  • Since then, there has been large-scale immigration of Han Chinese
  • Uighurs fear erosion of traditional culture

Who are the Uighurs?

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