CAIRO - In a ruling seen as example of stifling religious freedoms in China, two dozen Uighur Muslims have been sentenced up to life in prison on charges of separatism and plots to carry out jihad in the restive far western region of Xinjiang.
"Giving heavy sentences to Uighurs (on the excuse) of terrorism is China's special way of carrying out suppression," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uighur Congress, said in a statement cited by Reuters on Wednesday, March 27.
Two Chinese courts on Tuesday sentenced 20 Uighur Muslims to life in prison on charges of separatism.
The courts in Kashgar and Bayingol said the 20 Uighurs had had their "thoughts poisoned by religious extremism", the Xinjiang government said on its official news website.
The courts said the accused used cell phones and DVDs "to spread Muslim religious propaganda".
The rulings said some of the accused bought weapons to kill policemen as part of their plot and spread propaganda related to the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
But Raxit dismisses the accusations, saying the 20 Uighur Muslims were actually guilty of no more than listening to the US-funded Radio Free Asia and using the internet to discuss the importance of religious and cultural freedom.
In December, a Xinjiang court sentenced three Uighurs to death and another to life in prison on charges of attempting to hijack an aircraft in June.
Xinjiang and its Uighur Muslims, a Turkish-speaking minority of more than eight million, continue to be the subject of massive security crackdowns.
Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, was the scene of deadly violence in July 2009 when the mainly Muslim Uighur minority vented resentment over Chinese restrictions in the region.
In the following days, mobs of angry ethnic Han took to the streets looking for revenge in the worst ethnic violence that China had seen in decades.
China has blamed the violence, which left more than 200 people dead, on separatists who want to establish an independent East Turkestan.
China's authorities have convicted about 200 people, mostly Uighurs, over the riots and sentenced 26 of them to death.
But rights groups have cast doubts on the charges, accusing Chinese authorities of using the sentences to tighten its grip on the region.
It's not clear what is being alleged against these people beyond being members of a clandestine organization, Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher based in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, told The New York Times.
China has for a long time conflated religious activities taking place outside of state control with extremism, he said.
There's been so many unsupported accusations by the Chinese government about extremist Islamic activities and terrorist activities in Xinjiang that it makes it difficult to have faith in these kinds of announcements.
Xinjiang has been autonomous since 1955 but continues to be the subject of massive security crackdowns by Chinese authorities.
Rights groups accuse Chinese authorities of religious repression against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of counter terrorism.
Muslims accuses the government of settling millions of ethnic Han in their territory with the ultimate goal of obliterating its identity and culture.And analysts say the policy of transferring Han Chinese to Xinjiang to consolidate Beijing's authority has increased the proportion of Han in the region from five percent in the 1940s to more than 40 percent now.