BEIJING (Reuters) - China has sentenced four people to up to 20 years in jail for "plotting terror attacks", state media said, the latest in a wave of rulings as the government accelerates a crackdown on what it says is violence fueled by Islamist militants.
The sentences came as the separate trial of a prominent Muslim academic began in the western region of Xinjiang. Economics professor Ilham Tohti, who has championed the rights of the region's Muslim Uighur people, has been charged with separatism.
The four sentenced to between 10 and 20 years were found guilty of "participating in terrorist organizations, illegally making explosives, offering funds or harboring suspects", the Xinhua news agency said late on Wednesday, in a report on their trial in the southwestern province of Yunnan.
"The court said the gang was influenced by religious extremism and made explosives in Beijing and Yunnan, attempting to launch a 'jihad'," Xinhua said.
Two members of the group were captured trying to cross China's border "to join overseas terrorist groups", the news agency said. It did not say where they were trying to go.
All four defendants, who are Uighur judging by their names, appealed against the rulings, it said.
The decision follows last week's sentencing of three people to death and one to life in prison for a March attack at the Kunming train station in Yunnan in which 31 people died and 141 were injured.
China's leaders have vowed to strike hard at religious militants and separatist groups, which they blame for a series of attacks around China and in Xinjiang, the traditional home of Uighurs.
Shen Deyong, the executive vice president of China's Supreme People's Court urged judges to "speed up trials of terror cases and deliver exemplary penalties", Xinhua reported last week.
Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of central Asia, is crucial to China's growing energy needs. Analysts say much of the economic development there has benefited 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. Beijing denies that.
Hundreds of people have died in violence in Xinjiang in the past 18 months or so, the government says.
Tohti has rejected charges of separatism he faces at his trial that opened on Wednesday in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi. The trial has drawn international concern over alleged judicial and human rights abuses.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)