China sentences two to death for killing of pro-Beijing imam

China sentences two to death for killing of pro-Beijing imam
A Uighur man looks on as a truck carrying paramilitary policemen travel along a street during an anti-terrorism oath-taking rally in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region May 23, 2014.

SHANGHAI - A Chinese court has sentenced two people to death and another to life imprisonment for the murder of a state-backed imam in China's restive western region of Xinjiang, the official Xinhua news agency has said.

In late July, three suspected Islamist militants armed with knives and axes attacked Juma Tayir, a well-known pro-government ethnic Uighur who led prayers at China's biggest mosque, in Xinjiang, according to Chinese authorities.

Two of the attackers were later shot dead by police while the third, Nurmemet Abidili, was arrested.

Abidili and Gheni Hasan were sentenced to death on charges of forming and leading terrorist groups and murder, according to the verdict by the Kashgar Intermediate People's Court.

Xinhua said on Sunday Hasan was influenced by religious extremism and led a gang who trained members to kill patriotic religious figures.

Atawulla Tursun was given life behind bars for taking part in terrorist groups and murder. State media previously said an 18-year-old named Aini Aishan, who was not mentioned in the verdict, was the mastermind behind the murder.

Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people who speak a Turkic language, has been beset by violence for years, which the government blames on Islamist militants or separatists who it says want to establish an independent state called East Turkestan.

Last week, China sentenced Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur known to be the most prominent advocate for the rights of the Muslim Uighur people, to life in prison on separatist charges.

Tayir was a controversial figure among Uighurs. In 2009, he backed the government after it quashed deadly riots in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, in which nearly 200 people were killed.

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