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Economist Ilham Tohti speaks to students at the Central Nationalities University in Beijing on Dec. 1, 2009.

ELIZABETH DALZIEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

He was detained by the Chinese government for eight months as he waited for a court date. He faces 10 years in prison, or perhaps much worse. But on the second and final day of a trial in China's distant western Xinjiang region, Ilham Tohti, an advocate for the area's minority Uyghur people, was granted a scant few minutes to make a statement.

"There is nothing wrong with voicing one's thoughts," he told the court in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital, according to one of his lawyers, Li Fangping.

"And there is nothing wrong with doing academic research."

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Mr. Tohti, who is himself Uyghur, has been charged with separatism and is virtually certain to face a lengthy time in jail. China's convicts 99.9 per cent of those it tries, and Beijing has been eager to silence a man who has for years criticized its policies toward a largely Muslim minority that faces heavy restrictions on religious observance, dress, communications and mobility. Mr. Li expects a sentence of "more than 10 years to life in prison." It's not yet clear when the verdict will be announced.

Chinese authorities have accused Mr. Tohti, an economist who taught at Central Minzu University in Beijing, of spurring divisive thought among students and maintaining close ties to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a radical group Beijing has accused of planning terrorist attacks. "Those who had attended his class said he often fomented hatred between Han students and those from the Uyghur community," the country's state press has reported.

But lawyers for Mr. Tohti on Thursday sought to persuade a court that "the allegations against him are completely wrong," Mr. Li said. They brought as evidence interviews in which he argued against independence for Xinjiang, insisting instead that staying inside China was in Uyghurs' best interest. The lawyers introduced statements from a Chinese journalist attesting to his professionalism and lack of desire for Xinjiang to split away. His legal team also pointed to the formation of Mr. Tohti's website, Uighur Online, whose launch was backed by well-known Chinese scholars.

That the arguments are unlikely to free Mr. Tohti has only added to the anguish of his family, which has watched from near and far. Mr. Tohti's wife and three siblings attended the two-day trial, where his wife occasionally broke into tears, while his 20-year-old daughter Jewher Ilham watched from afar, as a student at Indiana University Bloomington.

"My spirit is as cold as this weather," she said in an interview Thursday amid fall temperatures. Ms. Jewher is angry at China for arresting a man she says offered moderate criticism that could have been helpful in assuaging some of the tensions between the Chinese government and its Uyghur population. And she is worried about her father, who may spend a decade or more behind bars.

"I don't want my father to spend his whole life there. He shouldn't be treated this way," she said. Lawyers have already told her that his health has suffered: he has lost 16 kilograms in weight and "he looks very weak. His eyes are not as shiny as before," Ms. Jewher said.

The rest of the family has suffered, too. Mr. Tohti's accounts were frozen, leaving his wife to subsist on her own salary of less than $1,000 (U.S.) a month. Their home and communications are monitored. Mr. Tohti's eldest son, who witnessed police beating his father, has developed a heart condition that doctors have said may be linked to heavy stress; he often wakes at night screaming from nightmares.

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Ms. Jewher, meanwhile, feels unable to return home, out of fear that she will be blocked from leaving China again. Instead, she is continuing her studies in the U.S. She has not yet decided on a major, and financial considerations may keep her from choosing her preferred subject matter. But if she can, she says, she will study journalism "to help him. So I can tell people the truth."

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