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Hundreds face trial for ethnic riots in China

China will reportedly put more than 200 people on trial this week for alleged involvement in the country's worst ethnic violence in decades.
China Protest
An ethnic minority Chinese resident walks past a checkpoint with heavily armed paramilitary police along a street of Urumqi, in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, on Monday.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

China will reportedly put more than 200 people on trial this week for alleged involvement in the country's worst ethnic violence in decades, an apparent move to draw a line under the episode but one that experts say is unlikely to address grievances that spawned the unrest.

The hearings will take place in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and the site of the violence last month that killed nearly 200 people and injured another 1,700, the state-run China Daily reported Monday. The rioting pitted indigenous Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs against members of China's dominant Han ethnic group, who have migrated to the far western region in droves.

The speed with which the suspects are going on trial seems to reflect a government desire to appease public anger by bringing swift justice upon those they blame for the violence.

Charges range from vandalism to murder
The suspects will face charges ranging from vandalizing public property to murder, the newspaper reported Monday. It did not give a breakdown on how many Uighurs and how many Han would go on trial, but it said more than 170 Uighur and 20 Han lawyers had been assigned to the suspects.

Officials have offered little direct information about the investigation into the riots that broke out July 5 after police stopped an initially peaceful protest by Uighur youths. Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) then smashed windows, burned cars and attacked Han. Two days later, the Han took to the streets and staged retaliatory attacks.

Most of the 197 killed in the violence were believed to be Han.

The reported trials show the Chinese leadership's belief that something must be done to avoid more instability, said June Teufel Dreyer, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Miami.

"I think that they are hoping they can convince people that these are fair trials, that justice is being done and that justice is being done quickly," Dreyer said. "But it's not so easy because they are not tackling the underlying problems."

Complaints of discrimination
Uighurs have long complained of discrimination and economic marginalization by Chinese migrants who have flooded into Xinjiang since communist troops entered the region in 1949. Like Tibetans, another restive minority, many Uighurs claim they were independent for much of their history.

"These people are not necessarily splittist. They are people who feel aggrieved. They want their grievances dealt with and they're not being dealt with, and I don't think a trial is going to do that," Dreyer said.

Tensions in Urumqi remain high, with security forces keeping a wary eye out for renewed violence.

The China Daily said security will be further increased for the trials to prevent revenge attacks or assaults by Uighur separatists, whom Beijing blames for carrying out a low-level insurgency against Chinese rule in the region.

Details about the resulting crackdown have filtered out mainly through the official media, which has offered fractured and sometimes contradictory information about numbers of arrests and preparations for trials.

An official reached at the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court on Monday confirmed the court would be handling cases related to the riots, but said he did not know when the trials would begin. The official, who works in the court's political section, gave only his surname, Ren, as is common among Chinese officials.

Authorities have repeatedly accused exiled Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer of fomenting the recent violence, but have offered little proof.

Is China looking for a scapegoat?
Kadeer has denied the accusation, and in a recent interview with the magazine Foreign Policy, the 62-year-old U.S.-based activist said China was setting her up as a scapegoat. While saying she opposed the violence, Kadeer said the riots were an outgrowth of pent-up anger among Uighurs.

"Instead of blaming me for everything, (the Chinese authorities) should just stop suppressing and stop killing people," said Kadeer, a former businesswoman who served six years in a Chinese prison on charges of endangering state security before going into exile in the U.S. in 2005.

State media last week said more than 3,300 items of physical evidence had been collected in the investigation into the riots, including bricks and clubs stained with blood, video clips and thousands of photographs.

The China Daily said 718 people had been detained on suspicion of taking part in the rioting. Earlier reports said at least 1,600 were detained. It wasn't clear whether any had been released.