By Chris Buckley
Hong Kong — Courts across Xinjiang, the volatile region of western China, have sentenced 45 people to prison in recent days after convicting them of supporting organizations accused of terror attacks or of helping others flee abroad, Xinhua, the main state news agency, reported on Thursday.
The Xinhua report did not describe the ethnicity of the defendants, but their names indicated that they were Uighurs, the Turkic minority in Xinjiang that has become increasingly estranged from Chinese government policies, especially restrictions on their culture and Muslim religion.
The government held up the convictions as proof that it would not tolerate violent opposition in Xinjiang, which in recent years has suffered a spate of violent attacks by Uighurs, in many instances using knives or rudimentary explosives. The government describes the attacks as terrorism, frequently masterminded from abroad, but human rights groups and advocates of Uighur self-determination have said that the violence is often primitive and locally inspired, and driven by Uighur despair.
“The people’s courts have zero tolerance for terror crimes,” said an unnamed official from the highest court in Xinjiang, according to Xinhua. “They will continue to use the law to strike hard against the crime of illegally leaving the country, and use the law to strike hard against criminals who flee abroad and attempt to join in jihad.”
Courts in Aksu, Ili, Kashgar and other cities across Xinjiang convicted the defendants for crimes in 10 separate cases that included “organizing, leading and participating in terror organizations,” as well as organizing people to flee abroad, Xinhua said.
The Chinese government has sought to stop Uighurs from fleeing abroad. They have often settled in Turkey after circuitous journeys through Southeast and Central Asia. In July, Thailand deported about 100 Uighurs back to China.
“There have been growing numbers of Uighurs escaping from China, and this crackdown is directly related to trying to stop the escapes,” Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, a group that advocates Uighur self-determination, said in a telephone interview from Stockholm. Uyghur is an alternative spelling of Uighur.
“But I believe that the Uighurs are fleeing abroad because of the specific policies that the Chinese government has enforced to oppress them,” he said. “These aren’t terrorists; they’re Uighurs wanting a safe place to live.”
Many of the cases announced on Thursday involved people accused of organizing others to leave Xinjiang, which is next to Central Asia. And the prosecutors depicted the defendants as bewitched by Islamist extremism and violent separatism.
In one case, the five defendants had fled on a truck to Tajikistan, where they were detained near the frontier with Afghanistan and sent back to China.
The prosecution charged that they wanted to join the Taliban and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that China depicts as the instigator of violence in Xinjiang. Many experts are skeptical that the group is as powerful and extensive as the Chinese government says.
In another case, the prosecution claimed that the three defendants hoped to reach Turkey using fake Turkish passports so that they could join a violent group and carry out jihad, according to Xinhua.
The Xinhua report did not say whether any of the defendants had admitted to the charges against them. In China, defendants come under intense pressure to make such confessions.