After a trial lasting less than a day, a Chinese court on Friday sentenced three men to death and a woman to life in prison for their roles in a mass stabbing at a railway station in March that left about 30 dead and more than 140 injured.
The quick verdicts came a day after China’s highest prosecutorial agency called for “fast-tracking” cases involving terrorism, religious extremism and the making of firearms and explosives.
Scenes of bloody chaos at the Kunming station on the eve of a key political gathering in Beijing shocked the country and spurred authorities to adopt anti-terrorism measures, from arming police to conducting mass sentencing rallies and offering generous rewards to those who offer tips on suspected extremists.
Kunming’s Intermediate People’s Court sentenced the three men -- identified as Iskandar Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz and Hasayn Muhammad -- to death for “leading a terrorist organization” and intentional homicide, although they were not present during the attack on the Kunming station, the official New China News Agency said.
The female defendant, Patigul Tohti, who authorities said was apprehended at the scene after being shot by police, was sentenced to life in prison on charges of intentional homicide.
Authorities said that while Tohti's criminal acts were “extremely severe,” the death penalty could not be applied to her because she was pregnant when she was detained. The agency did not elaborate on whether Tohti was still pregnant.
Brief video of the trial, aired on state broadcaster China Central Television, did not make clear whether the defendants contested the charges or what kind of legal representation they had, if any. But government-run media made a point of saying that the court hired translators “to help the defendants communicate in their native language during the trial.”
Authorities did not identify what language the defendants spoke, or provide details on their hometowns or other personal details. However the spelling of their names suggested they are ethnic Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority concentrated in China’s far west province of Xinjiang.
Many Uighurs complain that government policies on religion, language and even what people may wear in public amount to repression of their customs and traditions.
All three men were convicted of organizing and plotting violent and terrorist attacks in crowded places. The court ruled that Ehet and Muhammad had recruited people to join a terrorist group, while Tohtunyaz financed terrorist activities. The court did not offer any details on the group’s religious or political orientation.
As is typical in terrorism prosecutions that are becoming increasingly common in China, Ehet was found to have used “audio and video materials” to instill religious extremism in group members and teaching them killing methods.
Prosecutors said eight people -- Ehet, Muhammad, Tohtunyaz and Tohti, plus four others who were shot dead at the scene -- were directly involved with the attack in Kunming, which is in the southern province of Yunnan. Five other suspects are to be tried later.
The group of eight, prosecutors alleged, began plotting the Kunming attack in Gejiu, also in Yunnan. Prosecutors said the group bought “a dozen machetes and daggers” and “made jihad banners.”
But two days before the attack, the court said, Ehet, Muhammad and Tohtunyaz were arrested on suspicion of trying to illegally cross China’s border into an unidentified neighboring country. The court did not explain why they would be trying to leave China if they were simultaneously plotting an attack in Kunming.
Obtaining passports can be difficult for Uighurs and dozens have been caught crossing illegally into southeast Asian countries including Thailand en route to destinations such as Turkey.
Trials are usually closed in China, but state-run media said more than 300 members of the public -- including lawmakers, political advisors, victims and their relatives -- were among those present during the proceedings.
Li Liangwu, one of the stabbing victims, said in a phone interview Friday that he was not among the invited and didn’t even know the trial was happening until informed by a reporter.
The Hubei man complained that he had received less than $2,000 in compensation, about half from the Kunming government and slightly less from the Red Cross.
“I’m not satisfied with this amount,” he said. “If I had been able to work all this time that I’ve been in the hospital and recovering, I could have made two or three times that.”
Yang Tao, a Beijing lawyer whose cousin was among those killed, said his family had received about $50,000. “Of course, this is not enough to make up for the death of a young person who had their whole life in front of them, but who can we complain to?” he said. “There is no one to sue -- we can’t sue the government.”
Yang said he was in favor of the death penalty for the perpetrators and did not care what motivated their actions.
“I think it’s more important that the government take good care of the victims,” he said, “but right now they aren’t even doing that.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was visiting Tajikistan on Friday for a meeting with several heads of state, called for increased cooperation on “combating religion-involved extremism and Internet terrorism” as well as drug trafficking.
Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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