Urumqi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Eight people were sentenced to death for their roles in two knife and bomb attacks earlier this year in the violence-plagued western region of Xinjiang , state media reported yesterday.
In addition, seven students of prominent Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti, who received a life sentence for separatism, were jailed for three to eight years after being convicted on the same charge, according to Tohti's lawyer.
Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in the past two years, mostly due to violence between the Uygur minority and the majority Han.
In April, a knife and bomb attack at a train station in the region's capital of Urumqi killed three and injured 79. In May, 39 people at an Urumqi market were killed when attackers hurled explosives out of the windows of two SUVs.
Five others were given a suspended death sentence, which usually means life in prison. Four others were given lesser prison sentences, Xinhua said.
The government has blamed a series of attacks in other parts of the country, including Beijing, on militants from Xinjiang.
Critics and human rights advocates say Uygurs chafe under the repressive rule of the Han-dominated government.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uygur Congress, said the harsh sentences were politically motivated and the defendants had no chance of a fair trial.
The province is one of the most turbulent in all of China. Its Uighur Muslim minority, who number about nine million, have long sought independence from China.
The central government, for its part, has brought in millions of settlers to make Han Chinese the dominant ethnic group.
At the same time, it has severely curtailed Muslim religious worship as well as the teaching of the local language and culture.
Since 2009 Chinese police and the military have held the region under a special regime, which Beijing imposed following clashes that left nearly 200 people dead. As a result of various episodes of violence, hundreds of long prison sentences were imposed and dozens of death penalties were carried out.
Chinese authorities blame Muslim extremists for the wave of violence. Uighur exiles claim instead that Beijing is "exaggerating" the threat of Islamic terrorism to justify repression against indigenous Uighurs.