BEIJING — A Chinese court on Monday sentenced eight people to death on charges of leading terror groups and setting off explosives in two attacks that left 46 people dead in the far western region of Xinjiang, home of the Muslim Uighur minority, state media said.
The Urumqi Intermediate People's Court in the capital of Xinjiang also handed out suspended death sentences to five others, China Central Television said, without mentioning when the trials were held.
In a separate case, the same court jailed seven minority students of a prominent Uighur scholar for three to eight years after convicting them of separatism, rights lawyer Li Fangping said Monday.
Violence linked to Xinjiang has killed about 400 people in and outside the region over the past 20 months. Beijing has blamed the attacks on radical separatists with foreign ties, although critics and human rights advocates say Uighurs have chafed under the repressive rule of the Han Chinese-dominated government.
Uighurs also complain of economic disenfranchisement with the inflow of Han Chinese to their homeland. Beijing says it is pumping investments into the region to help it grow.
Most attacks have been mounted against state targets, such as police stations, military checkpoints and government buildings, but assailants also have struck at civilians in several recent incidents, slashing at crowds with knives or setting off bombs at train stations and commercial areas.
On April 30, as Chinese President Xi Jinping was wrapping up a tour to the ethnic region, an explosion shook a train station in the regional capital, killing three people, including two attackers.
CCTV said two men were sentenced to death in the train attack. The defendants said on national television that they were instructed by a man outside China to carry out the attack. CCTV said the man was connected to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that China has designated a terrorist organization.
About three weeks later, on May 22, four men drove two SUVs through a crowded market in central Urumqi and tossed explosives out of the car windows, killing themselves and 39 others.
Initial state media reports said that attack was the work of a five-member terror group, including the assailants who died. However, CCTV said on Monday that six people were sentenced to death on charges of terrorism, use of explosives and endangering public safety. It did not explain why the number of suspects grew.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said the harsh sentences were politically motivated and the defendants had no chance of a fair trial. "China will never seek the root causes in its extreme (ethnic) policies," he said in a statement.
Authorities responded to the attacks by launching a one-year crackdown on violence in Xinjiang, where security was already tight following riots in Urumqi in 2009 that left nearly 200 people dead, according to official count.
Among those sentenced in the clampdown is Ilham Tohti, a former economics professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing. Known for his candid criticisms of Chinese ethnic policies in his home region of Xinjiang, he was found guilty of separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment in September. Authorities accused him of fanning ethnic hatred, advocating violence and instigating terror through his classroom teaching and a website on Uighur issues.
Seven of his students — six Uighurs and one ethnic Yi — who helped him run the website were accused of being part of a criminal gang led by him. At least three had testified against Ilham Tohti on national television.
While Beijing insists there are no flaws in its ethnic policies, the top leadership has made some adjustments. It has agreed to provide free high school education in southern Xinjiang, which has the highest concentration of Uighurs, and promised employment for at least one member of each household in the poverty-stricken region.