BEIJING (AP) — China has sentenced three men to death over a June attack in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang blamed on Islamic extremists in which 24 police and civilians were killed.
The official Xinhua News Agency said Friday that another man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the June 26 violence, in which 13 militants were also killed. All four were found guilty of murder and being members of a terrorist organization and sentenced Thursday by the intermediate court in the city of Turfan at the end of a one-day trial.
All were identified by names common among Xinjiang's indigenous Turkic Uighur (WEE'ger) minority group, some members of which have pursued a long-simmering insurgency against Chinese rule in the vast region bordering on Central Asia.
In the incident, assailants attacked police and government offices in the eastern Xinjiang (shihn-jeeahng) town of Lukqun, in one of an unusually large number of bloody clashes over the summer. Independent reports put the Lukqun death toll at as high as 46.
Police said the attackers belonged to a 17-member extremist Islamic cell formed in January by a man identified by the Chinese pronunciation of his Uighur name, Aihemaitiniyazi Sidike.
Chinese officials typically say that such insurgents are orchestrated by Xinjiang independence groups based overseas, although there is little evidence of a direct link.
Overseas Uighur rights groups deny the accusation, saying they are working peacefully for Uighur civil rights. They also routinely criticize trials of Uighur suspects as being opaque, alleging that defendants are tortured and convictions and sentences determined on the basis of political considerations.
In the latest case, authorities said cell members began gathering as early as April 2010 to "pursue illegal religious activities and promote religious extremism" by watching, listening and reading materials promoting extremism and terrorism and carrying out "violent terroristic physical training," Xinhua said.
It said core cell members relocated to a private home in Lukqun at the start of this year and began selecting targets, raising funds, buying knives and preparing gasoline bombs.
However, shortly after preparations were completed, one of the members was arrested, and Sidike ordered the gang to attack before the plot was discovered. The 24 victims included 16 Uighurs and eight Han Chinese. Two were women.
Police wounded and captured four gang members and seized another suspect days later following a massive security operation.
"Their methods were extremely cruel and the nature of the incident was especially evil. Given the grave outcome, the case must be strictly punished by law, and by law the sentence was rendered," Xinhua said.
Bloody clashes have killed at least 56 people — and possibly many more — over the last several months as Uighur resentment continues to simmer over heavy restrictions on Islam and Uighur culture, and a perception that Uighurs are losing out economically to Han who have migrated to the region. The death toll is the highest since a 2009 riot in the regional capital of Urumqi in which nearly 200 people were killed.