BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese courts convicted more than 1,400 people last year for harming national security, including taking part in terrorism and secessionist activities, China's top judge said on Sunday, double a broadly equivalent number given for 2014.
Hundreds of people have been killed over the past few years in China's resource-rich Xinjiang province, strategically located on the borders of central Asia, in violence between the Muslim Uighur people, who call the region home, and ethnic majority Han Chinese.
Officials have blamed the unrest on Islamist militants and separatists, though rights groups and exiles say anger at Chinese controls on the religion and culture of the Uighurs is more to blame for the strife. China denies any repression in Xinjiang.
In an annual report to China's largely rubber-stamp parliament, chief justice Zhou Qiang said Chinese courts in 2015 convicted 1,419 people for harming state security, including taking part in terrorist attacks and secessionist activities.
He did not give a comparison, but last year in his work report he said courts convicted 712 people for separatism and terrorism in 2014, up 13.3 percent on the previous year.
Last year courts stepped up their efforts against people who "instigated secessionist activities, led, organized and took part in terrorist groups and who spread video and audio products about terrorism", Zhou said.
This year courts "will implement well the laws on state security and counter-terrorism and severely punish terrorists and secessionists", he added.
New Chinese security laws, including the counter-terrorism law and the draft cyber security law, have been controversial as they codify sweeping powers for the government to combat perceived threats, from widespread censorship to heightened control over certain technologies.
Critics of the counter-terrorism legislation say that it could be interpreted in such a way that even non-violent dissidents could fall within its definition of terrorism.
Western governments have expressed their concern to Beijing, though last week China's third-ranked leader rebutted criticism saying the country was taking a "distinctly Chinese approach" to national security with its raft of new laws.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ed Davies)