BEIJING — China sentenced three men to death and another to life in prison on Tuesday over an alleged hijacking attempt in June by members of the minority Uighur ethnic group in the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Charges against the men included organizing, leading, and taking part in a terrorist organization, and using explosives, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the Intermediate People's Court in the city of Hotan where the incident occurred. It said the four confessed and did not contest the charges.
In total, six men from the Muslim Uighur ethnic group were arrested for the alleged attempt on June 29, two of whom later died from injuries sustained while fighting the crew and passengers. An overseas rights group says the incident was a brawl over a seat dispute – a relatively common occurrence in China – not a hijacking attempt.
A court official directed questions to the Xinjiang government, where a man who answered the phone and identified himself by his surname, Yang, said he had no information about the sentences.
Xinhua said the men had prepared for months, hoping to divert the plane overseas or blow it up in the process. Shortly after takeoff, they rose from their seats shouting "religious extremist slogans" and attacked the cockpit with pieces of a metal crutch that had been broken apart and sharpened at the ends, it said.
However, in the process of trying to light explosives, they were subdued by air crew and other passengers and the plane returned to Hotan, the report said.
Musa Yusuf, Arsdikali Yimin and Omar Yimin were sentenced to death, while Alimu Musa was given a life sentence, in part for "showing a good attitude in admitting his crimes," Xinhua said.
Xinjiang is home to a large population of Uighurs (pronounced WEE'-gurs), but is ruled by China's ethnic majority Hans. Clashes are common between authorities and Uighurs resentful of large-scale Han migration and heavy-handed government controls over their culture and religion. Beijing says China faces an organized terrorist threat from radical Muslim groups in the region.
Such cases are usually decided by security officials well before any hearings are held, and confessions usually feature prominently in the prosecution. Torture, widely employed by Chinese police, is especially common in Xinjiang and another restive minority area, Tibet, activists say.
The alleged hijacking attempt came just days ahead of the third anniversary of deadly 2009 riots in Urumqi when nearly 200 people were killed in fighting between Han Chinese and Uighurs. Beijing has since further boosted its already massive security presence in the region and stepped up economic development and moves to further assimilate the Uighur population.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the overseas World Uyghur Congress, said local Uighurs told him the four defendants were given court-appointed lawyers who failed to properly defend them, and called for an independent investigation into the incident.
"No local Uighurs believe that it was terror because of the heavy security Uighurs have to go through before they fly, several layers of it, much more than Han Chinese. So, no one believes they would be able to try to hijack a plane," Raxit said by telephone from Germany.