BEIJING, July 30 (UPI) -- On Wednesday, Chinese authorities formally charged Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur academic and economics professor at Beijing's Minzu University, with "separatism."
Tohti has been detained since January after Xinjiang police said they had evidence the professor was plotting with foreigners to "spread separatist ideas, incite ethnic hatred and advocate Xinjiang independence." Police say he had also encouraged students to overthrow the Chinese government, and taught them "violent Uighur resistance."
Tohti has maintained his innocence. His lawyer, Li Fangping, told CNN in June that his client "reiterated that he has advocated to improve the rule of law, democracy and ethnic harmony in Xinjiang."
While in detention, Tohti has lost 35 pounds. The prison at first refused to provide Muslim food, which prompted the professor to undertake a hunger strike for 10 days. In March, he was deprived of food after Uighur separatists killed 29 people at a train station in Kunming.
Xinjiang is an expansive area of China that was traditionally inhabited by the Muslim Uighurs, Kazaks, and some smaller groups. During the last two decades, however, there has been an influx of Han Chinese migrants Resentment against Han Chinese political and cultural domination simmers and sometimes erupts into violence. Tohti's academic focus is on Uighur-Han relations.
The formal charges come two days after a deadly terror attack in Xinjiang in which dozens of assailants were reportedly killed by police.