BEIJING Chinese courts have sentenced 20 people to up to life in jail on charges of separatism and plotting to carry out jihad in the restive far western region of Xinjiang, the government said on Wednesday.
The courts in Kashgar and Bayingol said the 20 - all ethnic Uighurs judging by their names - had had their "thoughts poisoned by religious extremism", and used cell phones and DVDs "to spread Muslim religious propaganda", the Xinjiang government said on its official news website (www.ts.cn).
Some of them bought weapons to kill policemen as part of their jihad and spread propaganda related to the banned East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the report said, a group which China says wages a violent campaign for a separate state.
Many Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people native to Xinjiang, chafe at Chinese controls on their religion, language and culture.
China has blamed violence in energy-rich Xinjiang - strategically located on the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia - on Islamic separatists who want to establish an independent East Turkestan.
Some Chinese officials have also blamed attacks on Muslim militants trained in Pakistan. But many rights groups say China overstates the threat to justify its tight grip on the region.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exiled World Uyghur Congress, said the 20 were actually guilty of no more than listening to the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and using the internet to discuss the importance of religious and cultural freedom.
"Giving heavy sentences to Uighurs (on the excuse) of terrorism is China's special way of carrying out suppression," he said in an emailed statement.
In December, a Xinjiang court sentenced three men to death and another to life in prison for attempting to hijack an aircraft in June.
(Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Ben Blanchard)