BEIJING — China has executed nine men, including eight from the Muslim Uighur minority, for crimes committed during July riots that killed 200 people in far western Xinjiang region. The men are the first to be put to death for the country's worst ethnic violence in decades.
The nine had been convicted of murder and other crimes committed during the unrest, which began July 5 when Uighurs in the regional capital of Urumqi attacked Han people, who make up China's dominant ethnicity, only to face retaliatory attacks two days later.
Many Uighurs, who are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group linguistically and culturally distinct from the Han, resent Beijing's heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, their traditional homeland.
Four months after the riots, Xinjiang remains smothered in heavy security, with Internet access cut and most international calls blocked.
The official China News Service reported Monday that the nine were executed after a final review of the verdicts by the Supreme People's Court, but it gave no specific date or other details. Earlier reports had identified those condemned as eight Uighurs and one Han.
The timing of the executions was not especially fast for China, which puts more people to death than any other country, an estimated 6,000 people in 2007. Politically sensitive cases are often decided in weeks, especially when they involve major unrest and threats to social stability.
Most executions are carried by shooting, although some provinces have begun using lethal injection.
China accuses U.S.-based Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer and other overseas Uighur rights groups of fomenting and stage managing the violence, but it has released no direct evidence.
Kadeer has denied the claim and criticized the violence, but she says the July fighting was a result of pent-up frustrations about discrimination and government efforts to subvert Uighur religion and culture. The government insists that Uighurs have benefited from Xinjiang's rapid economic development, but activists say most of the benefits have gone to Han migrants who have flooded into the region in recent years.
Hard-liners among the Uighurs have long waged a simmering insurgency against Chinese rule, and Beijing has responded with harsh, high-pressure tactics to squelch occasional bombings, sabotage and assassinations.
A sizable number of young Uighur men have fled abroad to escape the repression, and American forces picked up 22 Uighurs in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 on suspicion of terrorism. They were taken eventually to the prison at Guantanamo, where they were held without trial as "enemy combatants" before being ordered freed by a federal court that ruled they were not a threat.
China calls them terrorists and has demanded they be returned, something Uighur activists say would like result in imprisonment, torture and possibly death. Instead, U.S. officials tried to find somewhere else to send them, shipping different groups off to Albania, Bermuda and the Pacific island of Palau.
The July 5 violence in western China began after police broke up a demonstration by Uighur students demanding an investigation into a deadly fight at a factory in the southern Chinese city of Shaoguan in which Han workers killed two Uighurs. The Uighur crowd then rampaged through the western city's southern neighborhoods, hunting down Han residents, smashing vehicles and burning Han shops.
Two days after the riot, Han vigilantes stormed into Uighur neighborhoods with clubs, meat cleavers and lead pipes to take revenge. The official death count stands at 197 with 1,721 injured, most of them Han, although some Uighurs say many more on their side remain unaccounted for.
The China News Service said another 20 people were indicted on Monday on charges related to the deaths of 18 people and other crimes committed during the riots. All but two of the prisoners listed in the report had Uighur-sounding names, with the others appearing to be Han.
Overseas Uighur activist Dilxat Raxit condemned the executions as motivated by politics and the need to appease Urumqi's angry Han residents, who marched in the thousands through the city in September to demand trials of those responsible for the July violence and also the perpetrators of a bizarre series of hypodermic needle attacks.
"We don't think they got a fair trial, and we believe this was a political verdict," said Raxit, who serves as spokesman for the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress that Kadeer leads.
"The United States and the European Union did not put any pressure on China or seek to intervene and for that we are extremely disappointed," he said.
Raxit said the condemned men had been denied final visits with their family members in violation of standing practice, but that could not immediately be confirmed.
China expert Steve Tsang of Oxford University said authorities had failed to win confidence in their handling of the trials due to the secrecy surrounding them and lingering mistrust. While serious crimes needed to be punished, there was an equal need for a truth and reconciliation process to build trust between ethnic groups, something the ruling Communist Party has shown little interest in, Tsang said.
"They will achieve their goal of short-term stability, but they're not solving the basic problems and they're not going to be able to put the issues behind them," he said.