A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced three Uyghur men to death and another to life in prison after finding them guilty of attempting to hijack an aircraft in June, drawing condemnation from exile groups who questioned the fairness of their trial.
The Intermediate People's Court in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s Hotan Prefecture ruled that the four men were guilty of “organizing, leading, or participating in a terrorist group, hijacking the aircraft, and attempting to detonate explosives on the aircraft,” according to state media.
The Xinhua News Agency reported that Musa Yusup and Ershidinkari Imin, “the leaders of the group who plotted the hijacking,” and Omer Imin, “a major participant in the planning,” were sentenced to death, citing a court statement.
Alim Musa, who the court said “played a minor role in the plane hijacking and willingly pleaded guilty after being arrested,” received a life sentence.
Xinhua said that all four defendants had confessed their crimes during the trial.
According to the official version of the incident, six Uyghurs attempted to hijack a Tianjin Airlines flight from Hotan to the Xinjiang capital Urumqi on June 29, using “converted metal crutches and explosives.”
The group of men “loudly shouted religious extremist cries, hit the cockpit door, and physically and verbally assaulted the flight crew and passengers,” Xinhua said, quoting the court statement.
The group was stopped by crew members and passengers “while they were trying to detonate explosive devices,” it said.
Two other Uyghurs in the group were injured in the fighting, according to the court, and later died in detention “despite medical treatment.”
Xinhua said the men had been “influenced by religious extremists and terrorists” for several months leading up to the attempt and had conducted several walk-throughs of security conditions and had prepared their weapons well in advance of the hijacking.
Exile Uyghur groups denounced the verdict on Tuesday, with the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) noting “a wealth of procedural flaws in their trials and serious questions left unanswered on the ordeal that lead to their arrest.”
“The WUC condemns in the strongest terms the death sentences handed down today to the three Uyghurs and life imprisonment for a fourth Uyghur for their alleged involvement in the Hotan air incident,” the group said.
“Confused and contradictory statements from the media and the fact that the timing of the incident occurred in the run-up to the third anniversary of the July 5 Urumqi ethnic unrest cast significant doubts on the reliability of the official account of the ordeal and their alleged crimes of terrorism.”
On July 5, 2009, Urumqi was rocked by ethnic clashes between Han Chinese and Uyghur residents that left some 200 people dead by official count.
The WUC said that the trial of the four men had been conducted “in secret” and that they were denied the right to choose their own lawyers, creating questions over whether they had been given a fair trial.
Xinhua had reported that during the court trial the defendants were “allowed to use their native language and were represented by lawyers” in an effort to “protect their legal rights.” Their relatives and members of the public were also present, it said.
WUC President Rebiya Kadeer also questioned whether the men had been tortured while in detention.
“Alim Musa was given life imprisonment for ‘showing a good attitude in admitting his crimes,’ suggesting that he was subjected to torture in order to extract a confession for the convictions,” she said.
“These types of incidents and convictions foment further discontent among the Uyghur people who continue to feel the brunt of ever-increasing repressive policies that are eroding their language, culture, identity, and freedoms.”
The group’s executive committee chairman Dolkun Isa said that even if the media had reported the truth about the Hotan incident, the government should still be held accountable because the Uyghur people are not being given the right to speak out about the injustices they suffer under Chinese rule.
“For many years we have urged the Chinese government to end its brutal persecution policy against the Uyghurs, and we also remind them that if they do not stop it, some Uyghurs may use the same [brutal] methods to resist,” he said.
We hold the Chinese government accountable because they don’t give the people of East Turkestan [Xinjiang] the ability to voice their grievances. From this perspective, we condemn the government which is forcing Uyghurs to take the path of violence.”
The WUC called on China to retry the four men in an open court with a lawyer of their choosing, and to carry out a comprehensive investigation into the incident.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness in Xinjiang despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
But experts outside China have questioned the legitimacy of the claims, saying China has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and used its “war on terror” to take the heat off of domestic policies that cause unrest.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.