China Deprives Uyghur Prisoner Right to Legal Counsel

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is concerned that undue political pressure has been applied to a defence lawyer to make her withdraw from defending a Uyghur scholar accused of separatism.

IIham Tohti, a prominent Uyghur scholar based in Beijing, was officially charged with separatism on July 30 after six months in detention. He was accused of using his website, Uyghur Online, to disseminate separatist ideas, incite racial hatred and advocate for independence for Xinjiang province. However, the authorities has not provided any evidence to support the claim.

Tohti was detained in Beijing and taken to Urumqi, Xinjiang, on January 15, 2014, but was not allowed to speak with his defence lawyer until June. Tohti established Uyghur Online in 2006 as a platform for discussion in both Chinese and the Uyghur language to encourage understanding between the two groups, but the website was shut down in 2008.

According to Radio Free Asia, one of Ilham Tohti’s defence lawyers, Wang Yu, has been forced to stop representing him. The report said that after Wang and human rights lawyer Li Fangping met Tohti in June, Wang learned that the Justice Bureau, which has oversight of all legal practitioners and law firms, harassed her firm and started to investigate it. After this pressure from authorities, the chief of Wang’s firm decided to stop representing Tohti.

The IFJ said: “Whenever a political case is coming up for trial, we find that prisoners of conscience are unable to exercise their right to meet their defence lawyers within a reasonable time. Further to that, their lawyers are being subjected to tremendous pressure by the Justice Bureau leaving them little or no choice to represent them.

“Ilham Tohti is widely known among intellectuals as a moderate scholar who has worked hard to reduce misunderstandings between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs. This action by the Justice Bureau and Police Bureau is a clear violation of the Chinese Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, depriving a defendant of his right to meet his defence team, and forcing an independent lawyer to stop representing her client.”

The IFJ urges the United Nations Human Rights Council and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to demand that China’s representative explain the case.