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Uighur professor could face the death penalty in China: lawyer

BEIJING -- A prominent ethnic Uighur economist is unlikely to receive a fair trial and could face the death penalty after being charged with separatism in China's far western Xinjiang region, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

Beijing police last month detained Ilham Tohti, a professor who has championed the rights of Xinjiang's large Muslim Uighur minority. Unrest in Xinjiang has killed more than 100 people in the past year, prompting authorities to toughen their stance.

Tohti was taken after his detention to Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi and on Tuesday his wife was notified of the charges. His case has draw concern from the United States and Europe over human rights abuses.

“To a degree, his name has already been blackened in the court of public opinion,” Tohti's lawyer Li Fangping said by telephone from Urumqi, where he said he has not been allowed to see his client after a month and a half in detention.

“We'll have to wait and see if his trial will be fair. We are not feeling very optimistic.”

If found guilty, Li said, Tohti was most likely to receive a sentence between 10 years and life in prison, but China's criminal code also provides for the death sentence for separatism. With strategic border regions like Xinjiang and Tibet populated with ethnic minorities, separatism is considered a serious crime.

“It includes the possibility (of a death sentence). If there are no other violent circumstances, it should be 10 years to life,” Li said.

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