Authorities in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang have handed down jail terms to alleged human traffickers for helping people cross the border and illegally leave China, official media reported.
Forty-five people were tried in 10 separate cases in parts of the region near the border with neighboring countries, including Yili (in Chinese, Ili) prefecture, Aksu, Hotan, Kashgar and Karamay, the English-language China Daily said.
It said 18 people, including trafficking gang leaders Wei Hai and Chen Qianggui, had been given sentences ranging from seven years to life imprisonment for helping more than 300 people enter Vietnam.
In the Silk Road city of Kashgar, five people were handed jail terms of eight to 10 years after being found on the border with neighboring Afghanistan and Tajikistan, it said.
According to the paper, the group had been on their way to join the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which China lists as a terrorist organization, and the Taliban.
"The group often gathered together to read books on religious extremism, watch videos featuring violent terrorism, and conspire to migrate to other countries to join jihad," it quoted court documents as saying.
One of the group, Abdulwast Jumar, was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, it said.
"After secretly planning to go abroad many times to carry out jihad, they gave two human smugglers from Xinjiang 140,000 yuan to be smuggled abroad," it said.
Under daily threat
China has been keen to portray the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghur population as potential terrorists after a wave of violent attacks following deadly ethnic riots in the regional capital, Urumqi, in July 2009.
But many Uyghurs who leave China illegally say they are fleeing systematic persecution by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which puts strong diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries to return Uyghurs to China rather than treat them as refugees.
"I know that the main reason [Uyghurs] escape across the border is to stay out of jail,'" rights activist Hu Jun, who spent many years in the region, told RFA.
"If they stay here, they are under threat every minute of every day," he said.
"The Chinese Communist Party regime doesn't care whether its citizens live or die, and they have little respect for life, and often kill in an extremely brutal manner," Hu said.
"We should really be asking first of all who the terrorists are, because this evil regime is the root of the terrorism."
"If your life was under threat every day, then wouldn't you want to leave just to stay alive?" he asked.
No legal way out
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress exile group, agreed.
"By handing out such heavy jail terms, they are trying to pass the buck politically for illegal border crossings," he said.
Sichuan-based Uyghur rights activist Pu Fei said that a major factor driving illegal border crossings by ethnic minorities in China is a lack of legal channels allowing them to leave the country.
"It's not that people are determined to cross the border illegally," Pu said. "It's rather that the government has closed off all the legal channels for them to do so, making it the only way to get out."
He said there is scant evidence to show that the Uyghurs were really on their way to wage jihad.
"On what basis do they claim that they were members of a terrorist organization?" Pu said. "I think the government should show a bare minimum of integrity and tell us."
Pu added: "I don't support illegal border crossings, but if you refuse to issue people with passports, then perhaps that is something that should be discussed."
Local sources told RFA in May that Xinjiang authorities had stopped issuing new passports, and were recalling all existing passports to be held by police, amid a widening security clampdown in the region.
Little has changed
Official media recently reported that the number of new passports among ethnic minority groups has risen, but ethnic minorities said little has changed on the ground.
"If Han Chinese go to apply, they make them wait around a week or two, and then they really do issue it, or they will give you an accurate response," an ethnic minority man who declined to be identified told RFA on Thursday.
"But Tibetans have to wait, and they won't give you any kind of response," he said.
He said the situation for Uyghurs and Tibetans is still pretty much as it always was, in spite of recent news reports claiming that the process had been "simplified."
"It's still very hard for [Uyghurs] to get a passport," he said. "I'm 100 percent sure that they have no intention of giving out passports [to ethnic minorities]."
An official who answered the phone at the Xinjiang regional entry and exit bureau denied the claim.
"Of course they can apply; they can all apply," the official said. "Our policies are the same for everyone in Xinjiang."
China has vowed to crack down on the "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in Xinjiang, but experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur "separatists" and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.
The government has accused the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which wants an independent homeland for Xinjiang's Uyghurs, of orchestrating attacks in the region, and claims that Uyghurs are being trained in overseas terrorist camps.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.