China’s terrorism and separatism cases are on the rise, according to the country’s Supreme People’s Court. As the country vowed to crack down on such cases, human rights groups were concerned that this could lead to even greater repression of freedoms.

"We will actively participate in the fight against terrorism and secessionism, severely punish violent terrorist crimes according to the law, and severely punish all types of crimes that gravely endanger the safety of the people," Chief Justice Zhou Qiang said in the work report delivered Thursday to the annual session of the National People’s Congress legislature, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. "We will resolutely safeguard national security, ethnic unity and social stability," he said.

A total of 712 people were sentenced last year on such charges, up 13.3 percent from the year before, according to the country’s Supreme People’s Court, and most of the cases involved the Uighur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest and protesters in Tibet. The number of convictions was 518, up 14.8 percent, and the report showed that China saw a 40.7 percent rise in the number of cases of secessionist activity instigation last year, though it did not provide further details.

Some see China’s resolution to clamp down on terrorism and secessionist activities as a means of repressing freedom of speech and expression. "The judiciary has become a tool to oppress the Uighurs," said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the World Uighur Congress who is based in Munich, according to Agence France-Presse.

Human rights groups have also pointed out that China’s proposed legislation on counterterrorism would legitimize ongoing human rights violations and facilitate future abuses. “China has seen appalling attacks on people, and the government has a duty to respond and protect the population,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement in January. “But in its present form this law is little more than a license to commit human rights abuses. The draft needs to be completely overhauled and brought in line with international legal standards.”

China has been drafting its first anti-terrorism legislation that U.S. President Barack Obama has also criticized. This new law is in addition to the country’s “strike hard” campaign that cracks down on violence in the country, especially the Xinjiang and Tibet regions, that was announced January to last through at least the end of 2015.

"It is pretty startling the number of arrests that are taking place in the crackdown," said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, according to AFP. "We are just very concerned about the issue of fair trials and how the anti-terrorism law will fit into the picture and be a tool for the strike hard campaign."

The Uighur Muslim minority has clashed with the Chinese authorities for many years, and more than 450 people were killed in Xinjiang last year, according human rights groups. There were three times as many deaths of Uighurs than of Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority. In Tibet, protesters have resented Communist rule since a 1959 failed uprising, claiming limits on Tibetan Buddhism and culture. There have been cases of self-immolation in protest, with the most recent one in December.