BEIJING, CHINA - The trials of 21 people convicted over deadly ethnic unrest in China's far-western Xinjiang region fell far short of global standards of due process, Human Rights Watch said Friday.
The judicial process was marked by "restrictions on legal representation, overt politicisation of the judiciary... and failure to hold genuinely open trials," the New York-based rights group said in a statement.
The Xinjiang government defended the trials in a fax sent to AFP, saying "the verdict results will be applauded by people who have a conscience, morality and a sense of justice, and will get the approval of the international community."
Twelve people were sentenced to death this week - three were given a two-year reprieve, a punishment usually commuted to life in prison - over their role in the violence that rocked the regional capital of Urumqi.
Four others were sentenced to life in prison and five were given lesser prison terms over the ethnic unrest, the worst China had seen in decades.
The violence erupted on July 5, pitting mainly Muslim minority Uighurs against members of China's dominant Han group, leaving 197 dead and more than 1,600 injured, according to an official toll.
Han residents staged counter-protests and isolated attacks against Uighurs two days later, but the exact number of casualties from that day has not been divulged.
The rights group said judicial authorities effectively warned lawyers against accepting cases related to the Xinjiang violence.
Li Fangping, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, told AFP the government had issued a statement "asking lawyers to be careful about accepting this type of case."
He added lawyers had been advised to report to judicial authorities and be careful about speaking out if they did accept the cases. Li said he knew of no Beijing lawyers who had agreed to represent Xinjiang defendants.
The regional government statement said 17 defendants were provided lawyers by the court, and four appointed their own legal representatives.
Human Rights Watch said the judges and prosecutors were also influenced by government authorities.
The official People's Court Newspaper reported on August 3 that judicial authorities in Xinjiang had published a manual on the unrest for court officials and police, "to unify thinking in accordance with the decisions of the central and regional party."
Human Rights Watch also criticised the lack of transparency in the proceedings.
"It is unknown who was allowed to attend the court proceedings, but neither foreign journalists nor international observers were present," it said.
France on Tuesday expressed regret "that European diplomats were not allowed to attend the rioters' trial," a day after the first batch of seven defendants were sentenced.
However the Xinjiang government said in its statement that journalists, the defendants' families and the families of the victims had all attended the trial.