A court in China’s restive Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang sentenced three men to death on Tuesday after they were found guilty of trying to hijack an aircraft, state media said.
The men, along with a fourth who received a life prison term, tried to commandeer the plane in June, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Xinhua did not give details of the hijack, but authorities said in June that six members of China’s Uygur minority tried to seize a plane that had taken off from Hotan in the northwestern region and were thwarted by passengers and crew.
The plane returned safely to the airport in Hotan – which has seen a spate of violent clashes between mainly Muslim Uygur and police due to simmering ethnic tensions – and the suspects were detained, authorities said.
Two security personnel were seriously injured, Xinhua said at the time.
Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the exiled World Uygur Congress, told reporters the four men were sentenced for the June incident.
He disputed the official version of events, claiming that a fight over seating broke out on board the aircraft between a group of Uygurs and Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group.
“The men who were sentenced were not allowed their own lawyers, only those that were given to them by the government,” he said.
“The Xinjiang people believe this has been arranged for the Chinese authorities’ political purposes. They could use this to step up suppression of the Uygur people. We believe the whole thing has no transparency.”
Xinjiang is home to around nine million Uygurs, many of whom complain of religious and cultural repression by Chinese authorities – a claim the government denies. The region is regularly hit by unrest.
The vast resource-rich region, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been under heavy security since riots in July 2009.
Rights groups say the violence in the region stems from long-held grievances among Uygurs, who complain that an influx of Han is eroding their culture.
Beijing says it has provided much-needed development in the region, and blames much of the violence there on what it calls the three “evil forces” of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.