The White House on Tuesday called on China to release a prominent scholar, saying it was “deeply concerned” after he was sentenced to life in prison.

Chinese officials handed down the sentence on Tuesday to Ilham Tohti, a member of the country’s Uighur minority sect who had been charged with carrying out separatist activities.

The White House urged Chinese authorities to differentiate between "peaceful dissent and violent extremism" in urging the release of Tohti and some of his students who remain in detention.

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“We call for Chinese authorities to release Professor Tohti, as well as his students who remain in detention, and to guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments and its own constitution," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement. 

The White House described the professor as a champion in an attempt to bridge the social divide between the Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang region.

Earnest commended China’s social and economic progress in the last three decades but said "the United States will always speak out in support of universal rights, including the freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly." 

The State Department previously expressed concern in July over Tohti’s detention, his need for legal representation and the lack of transparency surrounding his case. 

Human rights groups condemned his detention in January on charges they say were trumped up including inciting violence and conducting separatist activities. 

Chinese authorities justified the charges by pointing to foreign media interviews he gave and some of his writings on a website he established, which was repeatedly shut down by authorities.

Human Rights Watch defended the website as "a platform for Uighur social and cultural issues, as well as Chinese policies in Xinjiang.”