On Tuesday, Chinese Uyghur scholar, Ilham Tohti, was sentenced to life in prison after a court in Urumqi—the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region—found him guilty of the crime of inciting separatism. This is one of the severest sentences given to a political dissenter in communist China that has been seen in recent years.

Mr. Tohti is an economics professor and co-founder of Uyghur Online, a website dedicated to examining the relationship between the Han Chinese—the dominant ethnic group in China—and the Uyghurs—a traditionally Muslim people living primarily in the Xinjiang region of Northwest China.  Since the website’s 2006 inception, Tohti has been a target of Chinese authorities, who consider Tohti’s Uyghur advocacy efforts outspoken and radical.   

Tohti has been critical of Chinese government policies in Xinjiang, but has also attempted to peacefully bring understanding of the Uyghurs to the Han Chinese.  PEN International has been campaigning for Tohti since July 2009 when he was detained for speaking out about ethnic rioting that occurred in Urumqi in July 2009.  After being held and interrogated, he was released over a month later in late August 2009.  After his arrest, Chinese authorities prevented Tohti from leaving the country by detaining him at airports and frequently placing him under house arrest.  

Tohti’s recent trial concluded after only two days; when the final verdict was decided, Tohti was heard proclaiming “It’s not just! It’s not just!.”  The Uyghur American Association released a statement on Tuesday saying it believes “the sentencing is intended to silence peaceful Uyghur dissenters to Chinese state repression and confirms the government’s disregard for meaningful Uyghur participation in solving regional tensions.”

According to the New York Times, China’s shockingly drastic sentencing of Tohti and other moderate Uyghur activists “will only lead to further radicalization of Uighurs and a rise in violence, including the kind encouraged by foreign jihadist groups.”

EFF joins human rights advocates around the globe in calling for the immediate release of Mr. Tohti.