BEIJING - A mastermind of violence in China's Xinjiang region in which almost 100 people were killed sought to establish an Islamic state, official media said on Wednesday, reinforcing government warnings about an Islamist threat.
A court in the far western region sentenced 12 people to death on Monday for an attack in Xinjiang's southern Yarkant county on July 28, in which the government said 59 "terrorists" were gunned down by security forces, while 37 civilians were killed.
The incident was one of the bloodiest bouts of unrest in the region that has seen hundreds of people killed in the past two years, most in clashes between ethnic Uighur Muslim people, who call Xinjiang home, and ethnic majority Han Chinese.
In light of a near blockade on reporting by independent media on such attacks and a lack of hard evidence produced by authorities, China has faced international scepticism over its assertion that unrest in Xinjiang is motivated by Islamist separatists as opposed to deep ethnic divisions.
China Central Television (CCTV) showed several Uighur defendants dressed in orange prison uniforms confessing and expressing regret for their crimes.
They said they had been brainwashed into "holy war" by a man named Nulamaiti Sawuti, who the government said incited the violence in July and was killed then.
China's legal system is under tight government control and it is unclear if such confessions are coerced. At least one defendant's case was handled "leniently" because he confessed and as a result was given life in prison, the Xinjiang government's news site, Tianshan, reported.
"He talked about jihad, about establishing an Islamic state," one Uighur defendant, identified as Ailimu Rouze, told CCTV, referring to Sawuti.
"We often thought about carrying out holy war," another defendant, Aili Tuersun, said.
China has long argued that Islamist separatists in Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, hope to establish an independent state called East Turkistan.
Exiled Uighur groups and human rights activists say economic marginalisation and the government's own repressive policies on Uighur religious and cultural practices have provoked unrest.
All of the defendants spoke in Uighur and their words and names were translated into Chinese subtitles. The state broadcaster also showed Uighur defendants saying they understood nothing about Islam.
"He constantly incited those villagers and told them if they carried out holy war they would go directly to heaven," CCTV cited an unidentified police officer as saying.
In September, state media said police shot dead 40 rioters, some of whom were seeking to blow themselves up, after explosions in Xinjiang's Luntai county.