China jails students of Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti

File photo: Ilham Tohti, 4 February 2013 Image copyright AP
Image caption The life sentence for academic Ilham Tohti sparked concern outside China

Seven students of imprisoned Uighur academic Ilham Tohti have been convicted of separatism and jailed, a lawyer for Tohti says.

The students, who went on trial in China's far western region of Xinjiang last month, received terms of between three and eight years.

They were accused of contributing to a website run by Tohti on Uighurs.

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

He had spoken out on China's policies towards the Muslim Uighur minority in the restive Xinjiang region, but had denied being a separatist, and was seen by many as a moderate voice.

His imprisonment was condemned by human rights groups, the White House and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Tohti's lawyer, Li Fangping, said he was told about the sentences by the students' lawyer on Monday. Another lawyer for Tohti, Liu Xiaoyuan, also confirmed the sentences.

Celia Hatton, BBC News, Beijing

Seven of Ilham Tohti's star students disappeared into police custody in January. Ten months later, they appeared in a secret trial in Urumqi. In an unusual move, the Urumqi court refused to verify it was hosting the trial.

Tohti's lawyers, Li Fangping and Liu Xiaoyuan, have served as the media's sole sources of information on the students' case, even though they are not working on their behalf. Even official Chinese state media sources quoted the two men when reporting on the case. Mr Li told the BBC that he believed the students' lawyers do not want their names to be connected with such a politically sensitive matter.

It's also possible that the students' lawyers hoped their clients would receive lighter sentences if the trial took place out of the spotlight.

Unfortunately, that strategy seems to have backfired. The students were all found guilty, Tohti's lawyers report. Disturbingly, some of the students who testified against their professor during his trial were thought to have done so under severe duress, or even physical torture, rights groups say. In this case, keeping quiet might have protected the lawyers, but not their young clients.

Six of the students were Uighurs and one was from the Yi ethnic minority, the Global Times reported.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Security is tight in Urumqi, where ethnic tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese are rumbling

Prosecutors say the Uighur Online website that was run by Tohti, with his students, advocated Xinjiang's independence.

But when Tohti went on trial, Human Rights Watch said he had "unambiguously advocated peacefully for greater understanding and dialogue between various communities, and with the state".

The prosecution of Tohti and his students comes against a background of rising violence in Xinjiang.

The authorities have attributed attacks, some of which have targeted civilians in public places, to Uighur extremists inspired or aided by overseas terror groups.

In response it has launched a crackdown, arresting and jailing scores of people. On Monday, eight people were sentenced to death for their roles in separate attacks on a market and a railway station in Urumqi.

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

Uighurs and Xinjiang

  • 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 their traditional culture

Why is there tension between China and the Uighurs?

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