BEIJING (Reuters) - China has jailed almost two dozen people including “wild imams” who preach illegally in the western region of Xinjiang where the government says Islamists are waging a violent campaign for a separate state, Chinese media reported on Tuesday.
The 22 suspects were sentenced to prison terms ranging from five to 16 years at a mass public sentencing in Xinjiang on Monday, the state-controlled China News Service reported.
As well as the imams, or Muslim religious leaders, those sentenced included religious leaders who engaged in religious activities after being sacked, as well as those who broke the law while at their posts, it said.
Others were accused of inciting ethnic hatred, using superstition to destroy the law, and picking quarrels and provoking trouble, it said.
Xinjiang is home to a mostly Muslim minority group known as Uighurs.
China has vowed to crack down on religious extremism, which it blames for a string of violent attacks this year in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Exiles and activists say Chinese controls on the religion and culture of the Uighur people is more a cause of the violence than well-organized militant groups.
The exiled World Uyghur Congress condemned the sentencing in a statement, saying it was religious repression that trampled on the rights of the Uighur people.
“The so-called distinction between legal and illegal religion is determined based on China’s political needs,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the group.
“Uighurs basically have no rights to faith.”
Mass public sentencings have become common in Xinjiang, with state television often showing them taking place in packed outdoor auditoriums. Rights groups have said mass trials and sentencings deny the accused the right to due process.
A court in September jailed for life the country’s most prominent advocate for Uighur rights in a case that provoked an outcry in the West and among rights groups.
China is worried that militants in Xinjiang can get support from Islamists in nearby Pakistan and Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in an interview with the official Xinhua news agency that ran late on Monday, said terrorist groups should not be allowed to establish a safe haven along China’s periphery.
Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Robert Birsel