BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese court sentenced a Uighur journalist to 15 years in jail Friday for critical writings and comments he made to foreign media after last year's deadly ethnic riots in China's western Xinjiang region, a friend said.
Halaite Niyaze was found guilty of "endangering national security" and sentenced following a one-day trial in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, said Ilham Tohti, an economist based in Beijing who is a friend of Niyaze. A man surnamed Wen who answered the phone at the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court's criminal affairs department confirmed that Niyaze stood trial but said he could not confirm the verdict.
Long-standing tensions between Xinjiang's Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic group, and China's Han Chinese majority flared into open violence in Urumqi in July 2009. The government — which accused overseas Uighur groups of plotting the violence, something they deny — said 197 people were killed. Hundreds of people were arrested, about two dozen were sentenced to death and many Uighurs remain unaccounted for and are believed to be in custody.
Niyaze's 15-year sentence is among the harshest handed down for someone who committed no violence during last year's riots or for a Uighur airing dissenting opinions in recent years. Endangering state security is a vaguely worded charge that China's authoritarian government often uses to silence political critics.
On Thursday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists had called for the immediate release of Niyaze, whose name is sometimes transliterated as Gheyret Niyaz.
"Gheyret Niyaz is being tried for his work as a journalist — that is the only threat he has made to China's 'state security,'" said Bob Dietz, the committee's Asia program coordinator. "We call on the authorities to drop these trumped-up charges and to free Niyaz immediately."
Mr. Tohti said he learned of Niyaze's sentence from his wife, who attended the trial, and did not know if the journalist would appeal.
The 51-year-old Niyaze previously helped edit Uighurbiz.cn, a website that Tohti founded and was a bilingual forum about Uighur culture and life. After last year's riots, the government accused the website of helping foment the violence in Urumqi by posting information about a Uighur-Han clash in another part of China and messages calling for protest. Niyaze also kept a personal blog that he updated frequently. Niyaze was detained Oct. 1 and charged four days later.
In the trial, prosecutors presented essays Niyaze had written and posted online before the riots that touched on unemployment, discrimination and other problems faced by Uighurs in Xinjiang, Mr. Tohti said.
Niyaze acknowledged writing the essays presented in court and said he had also given interviews to overseas media after the riots but insisted he broke no laws by doing so, Mr. Tohti quoted Niyaze's wife as saying.
Chinese authorities view the control of information as key to heading off any new unrest in Xinjiang. After the riots in Urumqi, the Chinese government blocked Twitter and Facebook, and shut down nearly all Internet service and much mobile phone service in the region for six months.
In December, the regional government passed a new law barring individuals and organizations from spreading opinions deemed not conducive to national unity and also from gathering, producing and spreading information to that effect. Niyaze was charged before the new law took effect.
China's leaders say all ethnic groups are treated equally and point to the billions of dollars in investment that has modernized Xinjiang, a strategically vital region with significant oil and gas deposits.
But authorities have been accused of alienating the Uighurs, Turkic Muslims who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from China's Han majority, with tight restrictions on cultural and religious expression and nonviolent dissent.
Many Uighurs say they suffer discrimination in jobs and cannot get loans and passports, while many Hans see the Uighurs as a privileged minority with government jobs and university places reserved for them in Xinjiang.
In July last year, Niyaze told The Associated Press that he was employed by the Xinjiang Economic Daily newspaper but had been forced into semi-retirement by the paper because of an article he wrote in March 2008 that was critical of Xinjiang's then-Communist Party boss, Wang Lequan.
"In Xinjiang, especially, stability is the priority above all else," Niyaze said at the time. "You are either being praised or promoted for contributing to it or being arrested for harming it. It's love or hate and there's no room for uncertainty, no third road."