URUMQI - Four Uighur men were sentenced to between eight and 15 years in prison for stabbing a Han Chinese woman in the neck with a syringe in the capital of the ethnically divided Xinjiang region in China's northwest.
The case is the third to be brought to court as authorities attempt to calm a city-wide panic over syringe attacks, which led to protests demanding the ouster of the region's top official for failing to guarantee the security of the Han Chinese majority.
The Urumqi People's Intermediate Court on Thursday found the four men guilty of planning a September 3 needle attack against the woman in an underground passageway in Urumqi. The attack coincided with protests by tens of thousands of Han Chinese, in which at least five people died.
The panic fed on deep resentment between Uighurs and Han, who now make up half of Xinjiang's 20 million population.
The accused, who appeared close to tears, protested their innocence and said they would appeal.
Urumqi was rent by rumours of syringe or needle attacks after police warned of attacks on August 31.
The needle scare came two months after riots swept Urumqi in July, killing at least 197 people, mostly Han Chinese. Police had earlier stopped demonstrations by Uighurs in protest at the deaths of two of their kin at the hands of Han co-workers in southern China
Authorities initially blamed the needle attacks on terrorists, however, the four confirmed cases appear to be petty crimes.
A Uighur man and woman were jailed for 10 years and seven years for using a syringe to rob a taxi driver of 710 yuan ($103) and a 19-year-old Uighur got 15 years after he jabbed a woman in the buttock with a pin. A drug addict who fought off arresting officers with a heroin-filled syringe awaits trial.
Six foreign reporters were invited to watch Thursday's trial via video link from a separate room.
Prosecutors read out testimony from the woman and a witness saying the four men had passed close to the woman in the tunnel. Photos showed the men near the woman, and a red spot on her neck.
Other written testimony said witnesses had seen a silver syringe and the four in the tunnel looking suspicious.
The trial was conducted in Uighur with Mandarin Chinese translation, and each defendant had a lawyer.
After the police warning about 600 people in Urumqi reported to police that they had been attacked by syringes, but only about two dozen people were confirmed to have actual puncture marks, possibly from pins or sewing needles, military doctors said.
China accuses an exile group, the World Uyghur Congress, of fomenting unrest, while Uighurs believe they are locked out of economic opportunity in their own land.
On Thursday World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said that the group's secretary general Dolkun Isa, a German citizen, had been refused access to South Korea due to Chinese pressure.
A South Korean immigration officer said Isa's name was on a blacklist, and that he would be deported to Dubai. China's foreign ministry spokeswoman denied any knowledge of the case.
(Writing by Lucy Hornby; additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)