Authorities in the city of Hotan in the ethnically troubled Xinjiang region have handed a 10-year jail term to an Uyghur man convicted of selling "illegal religious materials" ahead of a sensitive anniversary.
The sentence was passed on Sunday by the Hotan Municipal People's Court on Hebibullah Ibrahim, the People's Daily online news site reported.
Charges of "selling illegal religious materials" usually attract no more than a fine.
An exile group said the sentence was a sign of oppressive policies toward Uyghurs, who form a distinct, mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group in northwestern China's Xinjiang.
"It is unacceptable that the Chinese government should be handing out such judgements," said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
"The authorities are using so-called legal processes to step up their systematic oppression of Uyghurs."
Hebibullah Ibrahim's sentence comes after courts in three counties in neighboring Kashgar prefecture handed out jail terms to nine Uyghurs on May 31 over their participation in “illegal” religious activities.
In the heaviest of the sentences, the Shule County Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Sidik Kurban to 15 years in jail and five years’ deprivation of political rights, saying he had overseen the operation of illegal, home-based religious schools throughout the region.
Others were given jail terms of seven years for "disturbing social order" on the grounds they had engaged in underground religious activity.
Dilxat Raxit said the severity of the sentence on Ibrahim was likely linked to the forthcoming anniversary of June 26, 2009 attacks on Uyghur workers by their Han Chinese colleagues at a toy factory in the southern city of Shaoguan and subsequent violence in Xinjiang known as the "July 5 Incident."
Days after the attacks in Shaoguan, what began as a peaceful, student-led demonstration by Uyghurs in the Xinjiang regional capital of Urumqi in protest against the attacks escalated into full-scale ethnic rioting on July 5 that left at least 197 people dead, according to official figures.
Beijing blamed exile Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer for inciting the violence, but Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress have repeatedly said that Chinese police opened fire on unarmed Uyghur protesters.
"They are handing out heavy sentences to Uyghurs around these sensitive anniversaries, so as to frighten Uyghurs and prevent any further protests in the region against Chinese rule," Dilxat Raxit said.
A Han Chinese Urumqi resident surnamed Wang said that he had come to understand something about Islam from living with his Uyghur neighbors.
"It doesn't matter whether it's Islam or Buddhism; it's all about doing good, with the exception of a few extremists," Wang said. "The media in China talks about extremists, but I'm not so sure."
"Right now the scariest thing about China is that people don't believe in anything," he said.
In the run-up to the July 5 anniversary in Urumqi, the authorities have launched a series of house-to-house investigations, aimed at uncovering any overseas links among the city's residents, a resident surnamed Zhang said in an interview on Monday.
"They are investigating all of the Uyghur families' links with overseas," he said. "Every block in the residential complex has a notice up announcing the probe into overseas links."
Chinese authorities, wary of instability and the threat to the ruling Communist Party's grip on power, often link Uyghurs in Xinjiang to violent separatist groups, including the Al-Qaeda terror network.
In October, Xinjiang courts sentenced four Uyghurs to death for violence in Kashgar and Hotan in July 2011 which left 32 people dead.
Uyghurs say they are subjected to political control and persecution for seeking meaningful autonomy in their homeland and are denied economic opportunities stemming from Beijing's rapid development of the troubled region.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.