Twenty-nine suspects in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi have been arrested in just one week after a ramped-up anti-terror crackdown fast-tracked their capture.
The suspects were held on suspicion of inciting secession from the state, gathering a crowd to disrupt social order and inciting racial hatred, among other charges, according to the prosecutor’s office.
The government blames Islamists and separatists for the worsening violence in the western region, home to the majority of mostly Muslim Uygurs.
There was no indication of any direct link to recent attacks, but those detained were described as “violent terrorist criminal suspects”.
The procuratorate said expediting their arrests was legal, and is part of the central government's continuing crackdown on the restive Xinjiang autonomous region where authorities say many Muslim separatists operate.
The crackdown was announced shortly after the May 22 bombings in Urumqi that killed 39 people. The national campaign will last until June next year, with Xinjiang as the “major battleground”.
With the full force of its security and legal departments as well as the People’s Liberation Army, Xinjiang will go after terrorists and religious extremist groups, weapons manufacturing workshops and terrorist training camps, according to Xinhua.
On May 22, assailants in two vehicles ploughed into shoppers and traders and threw explosives at a street market in Urumqi. One of the vehicles exploded, killing 39 and injuring more than 90 in the deadliest outbreak of violence in Xinjiang in recent months.
The government’s pushback came heavy and swift. Security was beefed up in major cities across the nation, as President Xi Jinping pledged following the attack to “crack down on terrorists with a heavy fist”.
Police said four suspects were killed at the scene and a fifth was caught that evening in an area 250 kilometres south of Urumqi.
Five days after the Urumqi attack, 55 people were sentenced for murder during a public rally held in a stadium in Yining city, near the Kazakhstan border. Three of them received the death penalty.
As a crowd of 7,000 people watched, the suspects were also sentenced with terrorism and separatism.
Courts in the region jailed 39 people last week for allegedly leading and organising terrorism groups, among other charges.
The Urumqi market bombing was the second attack in the Xinjiang capital in just two weeks. On April 30, a bomb and knife attack at an Urumqi train station killed two bystanders and wounded 79.
Overall, four high-profile attacks on civilians – in Xinjiang and in two cities outside the region – have been blamed on militants from that area since October, handing a major security challenge to Xi.
In March, 29 people were slashed and stabbed to death at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming. Last October, three assailants drove an SUV through crowds in front of Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Gate in October and set their vehicle alight, killing the three attackers and two tourists.
Today's report said the most recently detained suspects were charged with crimes, including incitement to separatism, organising mobs to disturb social order, operating an illegal business, incitement to ethnic hatred, and ethnic discrimination.
The government strictly controls information about security in Xinjiang, and little information can be obtained independently about suspects rounded up in crackdowns or the evidence against them.
Beijing says the attackers are religious extremists with ties to overseas Islamic terror groups, but has publicly shown little evidence to support that.
Activists among the Uygur population say the unrest is fuelled by resentment against settlers from China’s Han majority and official discrimination and restrictions on their native culture and Islamic practices. They also say Chinese authorities label routine criminal activity or even non-violent protests as terrorist acts.
Tensions have been high in Xinjiang since deadly ethnic rioting in 2009, and recent attacks appear to show a level of planning and determination not seen in the past.
At a top-level meeting late last month, Xi called for “copper walls and iron barriers” as well as “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to stop terrorism, while also promising more support for education and employment in Xinjiang.
With additional reporting from AFP and AP in Beijing