BEIJING (Reuters) - Four people accused of participating in an attack at a train station in southwestern China went on trial on Friday, charged with murder and organising a terror group, a case that triggered a sweeping crackdown on what Beijing calls militant violence.
The government has said knife-wielding militants from the unruly western region of Xinjiang launched a premeditated attack in March at the Kunming station in Yunnan province, in which 31 people were killed and 141 injured. Police shot dead four of the attackers.
China's leaders have vowed to strike hard at religious extremists and separatist groups, which they blame for a series of violent attacks in Xinjiang, the traditional home of the Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.
State television showed the four suspects - three men and one woman - sitting in the court in Kunming, watched over by heavily armed policemen dressed all in black.
The court, announcing the opening of the trial on its official microblog, named the four as Iskandar Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz, Hasayn Muhammad and Patigul Tohti, all of whom are Uighur, to judge by their names.
Patigul Tohti was shot and wounded by police at the station, while the other three were arrested a few days before the attack while trying to flee the country, the court said.
In total eight people were involved in the plot, though only five carried out the attack, it added.
The eight were "influenced by extremist religious thinking" and began meeting in December to plan their attack, the court said. Five more people were involved in forming their terror group, a case which is being handled separately, it added.
Some of the people who were attacked, as well as relatives of the dead, were in the courtroom, it said.
The court did not say how long the trial would last, but typically it will be completed in a single day. The defendants are likely to get the death penalty.
Courts in China are controlled by the ruling Communist Party, making it unusual for those accused of crimes - particularly in politicised cases - to have a fair trial.
The Kunming attack was one of the single deadliest incidents attributed by the government to militants. A suicide bombing in May killed 39 people at a market in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi.
Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of central Asia, is crucial to China's growing energy needs. Analysts say most of the proceeds from the sale of its resources have gone to the majority Han Chinese, stoking resentment among Uighurs.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest, a claim Beijing denies.
Hundreds have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past 18 months or so, the government says.
On Thursday, China's top prosecutor called for swifter trials of "terrorists, religious extremists and makers of firearms and explosives".
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Li Hui; Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)