, BEIJING, September 24- A prominent Uighur academic sentenced to life in prison called Wednesday for “peace”, his lawyer said, as China hit back at western powers which accused it of silencing a moderate voice.
Analysts say the sentencing of Ilham Tohti — a persistent but moderate government critic who spoke out for the rights of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority — on charges of “separatism” risks inflaming tensions in the restive Xinjiang region.
“Peace is a gift from the heavens to Uighurs and Han (China’s majority race),” Tohti said from prison, his lawyer Li Fangping told AFP. “Only with peace and kindness can we create a better common environment.”
Li said Tohti has been forced to wear painful leg irons and is confined to his cell 24 hours a day with six convicts found guilty of crimes including drug dealing, rape and murder.
“I am brave and I won’t be weak,” Tohti said, according to Li.
The court’s decision — which includes the confiscation of all his personal property — has been seen as unusually harsh, and comes amid a broader crackdown on what the state claims is a terror-backed independence movement in Xinjiang.
The sentencing of the 44 year old drew strong condemnation from the United States and European Union (EU), with both calling for his release.
US President Barack Obama said the US “stood in solidarity” with a number of detained activists, mentioning Tohti by name alongside imprisoned Chinese Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
“They deserve to be free. They ought to be released,” he said. “This growing crackdown on civil society is a campaign to undermine the very idea of democracy.”
Separately, the White House urged Chinese authorities to differentiate between “peaceful dissent and violent extremism”.
“We believe that civil society leaders like Ilham Tohti play a vital role in reducing the sources of inter ethnic tension in China, and should not be persecuted for peacefully expressing their views,” a statement said.
And Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was “deeply disturbed” by the life sentence, describing Tohti as “an important moderate Uighur voice”.
The EU called the sentence “completely unjustified” and urged his immediate and unconditional release, echoing separate statements from countries including Britain and Germany.
China’s foreign ministry hit back at the criticism.