Critics of the sentences say China has politicized the robberies as acts of terrorism.
Chinese authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang have ordered the executions of seven ethnic minority Uyghur men convicted of "violent" crimes, official media said on Wednesday.
The death sentences were handed down by the Supreme People's Court in recent days, according to state media in the regional capital, Urumqi.
The men were accused in connection with three separate attacks late last year in the Silk Road city of Kashgar, according to the news website Urumqi Online.
According to another website, the Xinjiang-based Tianshan news site, Aimaiti Tuheti, Yiming Dawuti, and unnamed "others" killed a security guard at a pedestrian mall as part of a failed Aug. 7 robbery attempt.
In a separate incident on Oct. 12, it said, Nuermaimaiti Aobulikasimu and 11 others broke into a house, bound and killed the couple living in it, and took their possessions.
It said the group also broke into the homes of two brothers, robbed them, and killed six people in a Nov. 11 attack in Kashgar.
The report gave no information about the victims or the schedule for the executions.
Three of the men were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, a sentence that is normally commuted to life imprisonment in China's judicial system.
They were convicted of deliberate homicide and armed robbery by the Kashgar Intermediate People's Court in the first instance.
'Strike hard' campaign
A Han Chinese resident of Urumqi surnamed Yang said a reference to "terrorism" in official news reports on the case showed that it was being politicized by the authorities, who have launched a series of "strike hard" campaigns in Xinjiang following deadly ethnic violence in July 2009.
"There is an implied political meaning; that they were somehow engaged in separatist activities or ethnic divisions," said Yang.
Exile Uyghur groups said the trials had been conducted behind closed doors, with scant opportunity for public scrutiny.
"The entire process against these men, from the trial through to the judgment, was opaque," said Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
"There was also very little reasonable evidence to convict them on a legal basis, because all the evidence came from one side of the case," he said.
"We strongly condemn the Chinese government for continuing to pursue their policies of ethnic division," said Raxit.
"We are also strongly opposed to the death penalty in this case."
Last month, the Supreme Court sentenced four Uyghurs to death for alleged involvement in an Aug. 19 bomb attack in Xinjiang’s western Aksu city.
The World Uyghur Congress pointed to concerns over lack of transparency in those cases too.
The Aksu blast left eight people dead, including two of the bombers, and 15 wounded after a man riding a three-wheeled vehicle threw explosives at a group of uniformed patrolmen. Four Uyghurs were arrested shortly after the attack.
State media characterized the cases as acts of terrorism and unrelated to longstanding ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in the region.
Exiled Uyghur dissident Rebiya Kadeer has warned that attacks like those in Aksu will continue to occur until Beijing addresses the underlying source of tension in the region.
Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Those frustrations erupted in July 2009 in deadly riots that left nearly 200 people dead, by the Chinese government's tally.
At least 26 people, mostly Uyghurs, were sentenced to death in the aftermath of the riots, many of whom have been executed, according to state media.
China is believed to execute more people each year than the rest of the world’s countries combined, although the government does not publish official figures.
Rights groups say Beijing may execute as many as several thousand prisoners annually.
Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.
New training scheme
China on Wednesday also announced a training scheme which places ethnic minority graduates from Xinjiang in work elsewhere in China.
Governments of the destination cities will spend 450 million yuan (U.S.$ 69 million) for the program, while Xinjiang will spend 400 million yuan (U.S.$ 61 million), the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The program targets some 60,000 jobless college graduates in Xinjiang, around 80 percent of whom are from ethnic minorities, and 60 percent of whom are women.
However, some commentators see the move as an attempt to assimilate non-Han Chinese into mainstream Chinese culture.
"From the point of view of ethnic minorities, the graduate work scheme is really taking the cream of youth from the minorities and using them to 'further cultural development,'" wrote one ethnic minority user on a popular microblogging service.
"In fact, the culture that is being advanced is Han culture, and this group of young people will have been totally brainwashed," the microblog update said.
An Urumqi resident surnamed Li agreed.
"They have run senior high school schemes like this before during the past few years," he said.
"Whether it's high-schoolers or graduate training programs, these are measures that are aimed at thought control and brainwashing, and the 'Partification' of their education," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
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