Chinese authorities sentenced 81 people on terror-related charges – nine of them to death – and made 29 new arrests in a huge crackdown in the far west following deadly attacks blamed on Muslim extremists, state media and officials said Thursday.
Four high-profile attacks on civilians since late October have handed a major security challenge to President Xi Jinping during his first 15 months in office. The attacks have been blamed on extremists from the Xinjiang region’s native Turkic-speaking Uighurs seeking to overthrow Chinese rule and inspired by global jihadi ideology.
Since a vegetable market bombing that killed 43 people on May 22, officials have issued a flurry of announcements citing more than 300 arrests and scores of rapid prosecutions resulting in stiff sentences including the death penalty ?raising concerns among some human rights advocates that the prosecutions may be trampling legal rights.
David Zweig, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the Chinese government feels threatened by the attacks and wants to show the public it has the means to stop them.
“They would be quite concerned that the general population is afraid that they can’t manage the situation,” Zweig said. “They probably feel that if they go and arrest a lot of people very quickly and lock them up, that they might have a chance of breaking the cycle.”
Authorities have said 23 extremist groups have been broken up, including a group of five allegedly plotting another bomb attack. Last week, officials said 55 people charged with terrorism and other crimes were sentenced at a stadium in northern Xinjiang ?including at least one sentenced to death.
On Thursday, official state broadcaster CCTV said 81 more people were sentenced at six different courts in Xinjiang ?including nine sentenced to death and three given suspended death sentences which typically are commuted to life in prison. CCTV described the main charges as organizing, leading or participating in a terrorist organization, although it gave no details and said the charges also included murder and arson.
Court officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, the Xinjiang regional government said on its website that 29 new “violent terrorist criminal suspects” had been arrested.
Chinese authorities strictly control information about security in Xinjiang, and very little information can be obtained independently about suspects rounded up in such crackdowns or the evidence against them.
Beijing says the attackers are religious extremists with ties to overseas Islamic terror groups, but has publicly shown little evidence to support that.
Activists among the native Turkic Uighur population say the unrest is fueled by resentment against settlers from China’s Han majority and official discrimination and restrictions on their native culture and Islamic practices. They also say Chinese authorities label general criminal activity and non-violent protests as terrorist acts.
The crackdown bears the hallmarks of anti-crime campaigns that formerly were common in China.
They were largely phased out after complaints they were ineffective and promoted abuses such as torture and forced confessions. Yet they remain a standard official response in Xinjiang and neighboring Tibet, accompanied by other now-rare practices such as parading the accused around in trucks and sentencing them at mass stadium gatherings.
Chinese leaders feel the need to appear tough to reassure a frightened public, especially in Xinjiang, said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.
However, Xinjiang police and prosecutors will now be under intense pressure to solve cases and obtain guilty verdicts, further chipping away at the flimsy legal protections suspects now have, Wang said.
That also increases the chances that the wrong people will be tried and sentenced, allowing the actual attackers to go free and exposing China to further attacks, she said. The campaign is also likely to increase resentment among Uighurs over their treatment under China’s legal system, Wang said.
“There are grievances and this gives the perception they are not getting justice,” Wang said.
In the May 22 market bombing in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, men in SUVs plowed through crowds and tossed explosives in an attack that killed 39 people plus four of the attackers ?in the region’s deadliest single incident of violence in recent history.
Three earlier attacks also were blamed on Xinjiang extremists, also using rudimentary explosives, vehicles or knives.
An apparent suicide bombing April 30 at an Urumqi train station killed two suspected insurgents and one bystander. In March, 29 people were slashed and stabbed to death at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming. Last October, three assailants drove an SUV through crowds in front of Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Gate in October and set their vehicle alight, killing the three attackers and two tourists.
Thursday’s report said the most recently detained suspects were charged with crimes, including incitement to separatism, organizing mobs to disturb social order, operating an illegal business, incitement to ethnic hatred, and ethnic discrimination.
The crackdown has been accompanied by tough language from Chinese leaders.
At a top-level meeting late last month, President Xi called for “copper walls and iron barriers” as well as “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to stop terrorism, while also promising more support for education and employment in Xinjiang.
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