BEIJING (Reuters) - A Uighur man accused by the Chinese government of being the mastermind behind deadly attacks in the far western region of Xinjiang in February has been sentenced to death, authorities said late on Monday.
Attackers wielding knives killed 13 people on a busy pedestrian street in Yecheng County near Kashgar, a city in the western part of Xinjiang that has been beset by tension between the mainly Muslim Uighur people and Han Chinese.
Abudukeremu Mamuti was convicted on Monday of “organising and leading a terrorist group, and intentional homicide”, the Xinjiang government said in a statement on its official news portal www.tianshannet.com.
China is extremely sensitive to Western suggestions that it mistreats or puts restrictions on Uighurs. Beijing often blames what it calls violent separatist groups in Xinjiang for attacks on police or other government targets, saying they work with al Qaeda or militants in ex-Soviet Central Asia to bring about an independent state called East Turkestan.
Some Chinese officials have also blamed attacks on Muslim militants trained in Pakistan. Yecheng, also known by its Uighur name of Kargilik, is close to the disputed region of Kashmir, ruled in part by India and Pakistan.
But exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say China overstates the threat posed by militants in Xinjiang.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the Yecheng incident should not be overblown and that it firmly opposes “a small group of violent terrorists and separatists destroying” the region’s peaceful development.
Mamuti’s trial, held in a Kashgar court, was open to the defendant’s family members and friends, according to the government, which did not identify the ethnicity of the victims.
Human rights group Amnesty International has criticised China for stepping up the executions of Muslim Uighurs by invoking terrorism charges.
Uighurs account for just over 40 percent of Xinjiang’s 21 million people. But they are the majority in Kashgar and other parts of the region’s south, and many chafe at government controls on their culture and religion.
In July 2009, Uighurs rioted against Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. At least 197 people were killed, most of them Han, according to official estimates.
The government sees Xinjiang as a bulwark facing the predominantly Muslim countries of central Asia. The region, with a sixth of the country’s land mass, is also rich in natural resources, including oil, coal and gas.
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski