HONG KONG—A Chinese court has sentenced four more people to death for allegedly taking part in last year’s riots in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, official media reported Tuesday.
The four defendants, whose names suggest they are ethnic minority Uyghurs, were charged with “extremely serious crimes,” according to the Xinjiang Daily, and their death sentences were expected to be carried out immediately.
A fifth person was sentenced to death, but given a two-year reprieve, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on its Web site.
Such reprieves for death sentences in China are often commuted to life imprisonment.
Eight others were handed a range of jail terms including life in prison.
At least 26 death sentences have been handed down to defendants in connection with July 5 clashes in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, nine of which are believed to already have been carried out.
The Urumqi riots followed protests over attacks by ethnic majority Han Chinese on Uyghur workers in southern China’s Guangzhou province.
Nearly 200 people were killed in the ensuing violence, by the government's tally.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile World Uyghur Congress, called on governments around the world to press Beijing to end what he called “illegal” trials.
“[The government says it] is holding open trials for these cases, but in reality these trials are not open,” he said.
"The defendants were not given the right to find attorneys for themselves or even to defend themselves…The attorneys were state-designated lawyers,” Raxit said.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said she questioned the legitimacy of the trials in an often flawed Chinese judicial system.
“In China we have deep and broad concerns about due process, even in ordinary, nonsensitive cases—and these are highly sensitive cases,” she said.
Richardson questioned whether the four defendants had been granted access to the evidence presented against them and whether they had been granted all of the rights guaranteed them under Chinese law.
“Trials in China generally are politicized and this is not unique to Xinjiang, it’s not unique to Tibet, it’s not unique to high-profile critics of the government,” she said.
“I think it’s particularly acute at the moment in Xinjiang, given the nature of the unrest there and the government’s interest in trying to dissuade anyone from engaging in further public criticism of the government.”
Richardson also called on other governments to demand that the Chinese government comply with its own laws with respect to fair trials and ensure that all death penalty sentences be reviewed at the national level.
Region remains tense
The regional Xinjiang government said this month it would double its security budget in 2010 and carry out policies to encourage economic growth to alleviate tensions that led to the unrest last year.
Security remains tight in Xinjiang in the wake of the violence, with Internet and telephone services extremely limited for most of the region's 20 million people.
China in December pressed Cambodia to deport a group of 20 Uyghurs, including two young children, who fled after the July riots and sought asylum with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh.
Cambodia said it expelled the Uyghurs because they had illegally entered the country.
It has since been sharply criticized by Washington, which said the deportations would harm bilateral ties with the United States, though they may have strengthened relations with Beijing.
Uyghurs, a distinct and mostly Muslim ethnic group indigenous to Xinjiang, have long complained of religious, political, and cultural oppression under Chinese rule, and tensions have simmered there for years.
Xinjiang has been plagued in recent years by bombings, attacks, and riots that Chinese authorities blame on Uyghur separatists.
Original reporting and translation by Mamatjan Juma for RFA’s Uyghur service. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.