BEIJING China has jailed dozens of ethnic Uighurs in the far western region of Xinjiang for speaking out about riots in the regional capital two years ago, Amnesty International said on Tuesday, part of a broader campaign against voices of dissent nationwide.
In July 2009, the capital city of Urumqi was rocked by violence between majority Han Chinese and minority Uighurs that killed nearly 200 people. Many of the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs, who call Xinjiang home, chafe at Beijing's rule.
Since then, China has executed nine people it blamed for instigating the riots, detained and prosecuted hundreds of others and ramped up spending on security, according to state media and overseas rights groups.
Last month, Kazakhstan extradited a Uighur schoolteacher who had been granted U.N. refugee status to face charges of terrorism in China, brushing off concerns he could be tortured and that the charges against him were trumped up.
"The government is not only still muzzling people who speak out about July 2009, it is using its influence outside its borders to shut them up," said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's director for the Asia-Pacific.
"The general trend toward repression that we see all over China is particularly pronounced in Xinjiang, where the Uighur population has become a minority in its own homeland."
China is in the midst of a sweeping campaign against rights activists, following calls on-line for Arab-style "Jasmine protests" in China which have spooked Beijing.
Other Uighurs have been jailed for speaking to foreign reporters about the events two years ago, or for discussing the unrest on Uighur websites.
"Attacking every Uighur who speaks freely is no way to resolve the underlying grievances that led to the 2009 protests in the first place," Zarifi added.
"The Chinese government has to listen to the grievances of the Uighur community and address their demands to have their rights respected and their culture protected."
ALWAYS ON GUARD
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that while Xinjiang was generally stable and its people happy, it remained threatened by separatists, who Beijing accuses of wanting to set up an independent state called East Turkistan.
"We are always on our guard against the damaging activities of splitists," Hong told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Xinjiang is strategically vital to China and Beijing has shown no sign of loosening its grip.
A vast swathe of territory, accounting for one-sixth of China's land mass, Xinjiang holds oil, gas and coal deposits and borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Central Asia.
Dilxat Raxit of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said the two-year anniversary of the rioting had been marked by even tighter security.
"Uighurs are scared to go outside today lest they get picked up by the police just for being in a group of three or four people. They are choosing to stay at home," he said by telephone.
Since the unrest, China has turned its attention to boosting development in Xinjiang and providing greater job opportunities, especially for Uighurs, to try and address some of the root causes of the violence.
But the government has also installed some 40,000 surveillance cameras in Urumqi and increased by more than half this year's regional security budget, to 2.89 billion yuan ($447 million), according to state media.
Xinjiang's Communist Party boss, Zhang Chunxian, visited a night market on Monday, the government said, in a show of ethnic unity and to demonstrate normalcy has returned to Urumqi.
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)