BEIJING (REUTERS) - China sentenced 45 people to prison in its Xinjiang region for cases involving illegal border crossings, state media reported on Thursday, saying they sought out "holy war" and had committed crimes including organising or funding "terrorist groups".
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Muslim ethnic Uighurs, keen to escape unrest in their western home region of Xinjiang, have travelled clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey.
Beijing, which blames Islamist militants for violent attacks in Xinjiang in the past three years in which hundreds have died, says some people are trafficked across the border and end up fighting for groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Authorities sentenced 43 people in recent days, involved in 10 cases from the Xinjiang cities of Ili, Karamay, Aksu, Kashgar and Hotan, to between four and 15 years in jail, with two others given life sentences, the official Xinjiang Daily said.
Those sentenced were involved in "organising, leading, or participating in terrorist groups, funding terrorist groups, and organising others to illegally cross the border", it said. "Among the 10 cases, all those who tried to illegally leave the country were poisoned with religious extremist ideology, and were enticed and manipulated by smugglers to take part in holy war," the newspaper said.
China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language.
Officials in Beijing say separatists from Xinjiang are trying to set up an independent state called East Turkestan and deny accusations by rights advocates that China restricts Uighurs' religious freedom and culture. "China's policy of suppression is leading to Uighurs seeking security through illegal immigration," World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in an emailed statement. "The harsh punishment is shifting political responsibility for the cause of illegal immigration." In July, Thailand deported 109 Uighurs back to China, feeding concern among rights groups and the United States that they could be mistreated upon their return, and sparking anger in Turkey, home to a large Uighur diaspora.
Turkey has vowed to keep its doors open to Uighur migrants fleeing persecution in China, exacerbating a row with Beijing.
About 170 Uighur women and children arrived in Turkey in late June from Thailand, where they had been held for more than a year for illegal entry, the U.S.-based Radio Free Asia has reported.