BEIJING (Reuters) - China sentenced eight people to death for their roles in two knife and bomb attacks this spring in the country's violence-plagued western region of Xinjiang, state media reported on Monday.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the region in the past two years, mostly due to violence between the Muslim Uighur minority and the majority Han Chinese. The government has blamed a series of attacks in other parts of China, including Beijing, on Islamist militants from Xinjiang.
In April, a knife and bomb attack at a train station in the region's capital of Urumqi killed three and injured 79. In May, 39 people at a Urumqi market were killed when attackers hurled explosives out of the windows of two SUVs.
Five others were given a sentence of "suspended death", which in China usually means life in prison. Four others were given lesser prison sentences, the official Xinhua news agency said.
The people involved in the April attack were under the command of a member of the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement who has since fled China, the report said.
The group gathered to watch and listen to extremist material, carried out test explosions and had also plotted to go abroad, Xinhua added.
Many Uighurs call Xinjiang East Turkestan. China's government often blames frequent outbreaks of violence there on extremists agitating for an independent nation.
State television broadcast interviews with some of the defendants, who said they had been led astray and regretted their actions.
In such a heavily politicised environment, a fair trial was impossible, said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for exile group the World Uyghur Congress.
"China has not looked at all for the root causes of the incident from the point of view of their own extreme policies," he said in an emailed statement.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say the government's repressive policies in Xinjiang, including controls on Islam, have provoked unrest. Beijing denies that.
Xinjiang, resource-rich and strategically located on the borders of central Asia, is crucial to China's growing energy needs. Analysts say most of the proceeds from sales of its resources have gone to majority Han Chinese, stoking resentment among Uighurs.
The government has blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement for numerous previous attacks, even though many experts and rights groups have cast doubt on its existence as a cohesive group.
Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie