Muslim Uighurs face death penalty in China over Xinjiang killings

Attacks last year left nearly 200 dead in Xinjiang province, where Uighurs feel Han Chinese have moved in to enjoy better economic prospects.

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BEIJING // Four men from China's Muslim minority Uighur community are facing execution for their part in attacks last year that left a string of people dead.

State-controlled media reported yesterday that the Supreme Court had approved the execution of the men for killings in late 2010 in Xinjiang province.

The attacks came a little more than a year after the resource-rich but undeveloped province was rocked by widespread violence that, according to official figures, left nearly 200 people dead, most from the majority Han Chinese group.

The four convicted have been identified by their names as Uighurs, a Turkic-Muslim people, many of whom have grown unhappy at the influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang in recent decades.

Tuerhong Tuerdi and Abudula Tueryacun were sentenced to death for an attack in August in which explosives were used to target a crowd in Aksu city, killing at least seven people, including two of the attackers, according to reports on the Xinjiang Daily website.

Also convicted was Akeneyacun Nuer, who stabbed a policeman to death in Khotan city in November after refusing to stop his vehicle for an inspection.

The fourth death sentence was handed out to Abudukaiyoumu Abudureheman, who killed two people with a homemade gun in September.

Uighurs, who constitute eight million of Xinjiang's 20m population, consider the province their homeland and tensions have flared amid concerns that Han Chinese have moved in to enjoy better economic prospects.

Xiaowei Zang, a specialist on China's ethnic minorities and head of the school of East Asian studies at the University of Sheffield in England, said: "It's about inequality in Xinjiang.

"Most of the big firms in Xinjiang are in the hands of Han Chinese and that's the problem. The Uighurs think Xinjiang is their homeland. They feel an entitlement. That's one of the reasons the Uighurs are not happy."

While some Uighurs have staged a violent campaign for independence from Beijing, media have not reported the motive for the attacks for which the four men were convicted.

Hundreds of people were detained in the wake of riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July 2009 which saw Uighurs attack members of the Han Chinese community, some of whom launched revenge attacks. Death sentences related to the violence were handed out to at least 26 people, the majority of them Uighurs, and rights groups say many Uighurs remain missing, assumed still to be in custody.

Uighurs have complained they are more heavily restricted from undertaking the haj than members of China's other Muslim minorities, such as the Hui people.

Reports have said online letters have recently called for regular anti-government protests in Urumqi.

The continuing discontent comes as Chinese authorities look to promote economic development in Xinjiang, having only last month announced plans to spend tens of billions of yuan on new airports.

China is thought to execute more people than the rest of the world put together, with estimates suggesting the total figure runs into several thousand per year.

Last year proposals were announced to reduce from 68 to 55 the number of offences for which the death penalty could be imposed, although 13 categories for which the death penalty would no longer be applied have rarely been enforced in recent years.