Police look for fugitive "terrorists" in Aksu, in northeast China's Xinjiang region, August 9, 2014
China convicted and sentenced 712 people for terrorism, separatism and related crimes last year, the country's top court said on Thursday, saying such offences were its top priority for 2015.
Violent attacks and unrest have been on the rise in recent years in China's remote Xinjiang region, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, and Tibetan areas, where reports of self-immolation in protest against Chinese rule often hit global headlines.
China has vowed to step up punishment of what it calls "violent terrorists" and is drafting its first-ever anti-terrorism law. Rights groups have warned it would grant the Communist Party even greater powers to "define terrorism and terrorist activities so broadly as to easily include peaceful dissent or criticism" of government policies.
The number of people sentenced last year for crimes such as inciting secession and terrorist attack was up 13.3 percent from 2013, the Supreme People's Court said in its report to the National People's Congress, the country's Communist-controlled legislature.
It put "maintaining national security and social stability" at the top of its agenda this year.
"(We will) actively participate in the fight against terrorism and separatism and firmly punish violent terrorist crimes according to the law," it said in the report.
"(We will) seriously punish the various crimes that gravely harm the people's safety, resolutely maintain national security, ethnic unity and social stability," it added.
Among those jailed last year was prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who taught economics at a university in Beijing and was sentenced to life in prison for "separatism" in September. His case prompted international diplomatic condemnation and several of his students were subsequently tried and convicted for the same offence.
"The judiciary has become a tool to oppress the Uighurs," Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, said in an email to AFP.
- 'Strike hard' -
More than 450 people were killed in Xinjiang last year, a rights group said earlier this month -- with three times as many deaths among Uighurs than Han Chinese, the country's ethnic majority.
Information in the area is tightly controlled and difficult to independently verify.
Rights groups say that harsh police treatment of Uighurs and government campaigns against religious practices, such as the wearing of veils, has led to violence, with Raxit saying resistance had grown in the face of "systematic repression".
China defends its policies, arguing that it has boosted economic development in the area and that it upholds minority and religious rights in a country with 56 recognised ethnic groups.
Clashes and increasingly sophisticated strikes have spread, both in Xinjiang -- home to just over 10 million Uighurs -- and outside it.
Among the most shocking attacks was a deadly rampage by knife-wielding assailants at a train station at Kunming in China's southwest last March, when 31 people were killed and four attackers died.
Beijing has responded by launching a harsh crackdown in the region, with hundreds of people jailed or detained on terror-related offences following a deadly May attack on a market that killed 39 people.
Authorities in January announced the extension of the year-long "strike hard" campaign until at least the end of 2015, alarming rights campaigners.
"It is pretty startling the number of arrests that are taking place in the crackdown," William Nee, China researcher at London-based Amnesty International, told 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."
Nee said the draft of the new law contains measures for a "non-stop strike hard campaign", signalling that the crackdown could continue "indefinitely".