BEIJING A Chinese court sentenced three men to death and another to life in prison on Tuesday for attempting to hijack a plane in its Xinjiang region in June, state media said, as Beijing cracks down on what it calls violent separatists in its far west.
Passengers and air crew subdued six people who tried to hijack a flight minutes after it took off from the remote desert city of Hotan, a heavily ethnic Uighur area that had been hit by recent bouts of violence.
Earlier, state media reports said two of the men died from injuries sustained on board the plane, but Uighur advocacy groups have questioned the government's account.
The men confessed to their crimes and were "guilty of organising, leading or participating in a terrorist group, hijacking the aircraft, and attempting to detonate explosives on the aircraft," the official Xinhua news agency said, citing the Intermediate People's Court in Hotan.
The court sentenced Musa Yvsup and Arxidikali Yimin to death for plotting and leading the hijacking, and Eyumer Yimin for his role in the incident. Alem Musa received a life sentence after pleading guilty "with a good attitude", Xinhua said.
Xinjiang is home to the mainly Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language. Many of them chafe at Chinese government controls on their culture and religion.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said the four men had been denied their choice of lawyers.
Chinese authorities, wary of instability and the threat to the Communist Party's grip on power, often blame what they say are violent separatist groups and religious extremists in Xinjiang for attacks on police and other government targets.
In September, courts in Xinjiang sentenced four people to death for violence in two cities last year in which 32 people were killed.
The government blamed the incidents in Kashgar and Hotan - both in the majority Uighur southern part of Xinjiang - on Muslim hardliners who want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.
China is concerned about Uighur activists linking up with Islamist militants over the border in Pakistan.
Activists in exile and human rights groups say China overstates the threat posed by militants in energy-rich Xinjiang, which sits astride south and central Asia.
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)