On March 1, 2014, eight assailants armed with knives cut a swath of terror through Kunming Railway Station in China’s Yunnan province. The attack left 29 dead and over 140 injured. Of the assailants, four were killed on the scene by police; four others were apprehended later. Afterwards, the Chinese government said the attackers had ties to separatist terrorist groups based in China’s Xinjiang province.
On March 24 of this year, China’s Supreme People’s Court announced that three men have been executed for their part in the terrorist attack: Iskandar Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz and Hasayn Muhammad. The fourth captured assailant, Patigul Tohti, one of two women reportedly involved in the attack, was given a life sentence. She was reported to be pregnant at the time of her arrest last year. The SPC made the announcement in a post from its official microblog account.
The three executed men were convicted on charges of homicide and leading a terrorist organization. They were sentenced to death last September by the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court and had their sentences upheld in a review by a higher court.
The Kunming attack was a watershed moment for China’s “war on terror” – an attack with mass civilian casualties that took place thousands of miles away from Xinjiang, where violent incidents occur with mind-numbing frequency. Even a terrorist attack in the symbolic center of Beijing — when a car was intentionally crashed in Tiananmen Square – did not have quite the same impact. The Kunming attack in particular helped inspire China’s official year-long crackdown on terror, with Beijing taking steps to prevent a repeat.
China’s terror crackdown in turn required the creation of a new legal framework to deal with terrorism and associated crimes. The result, China’s draft anti-terrorism law, has been scrutinized for a lack of protection for human rights (it outlaw not only terrorist actions but “thought [or] speech” as well).
Human rights activists are generally suspicious of China’s “war on terror,” alleging that China uses terrorism as a catch-all excuse for perpetrating violence on the Uyghur population. Dilxat Raxit, a spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress, protested against the recent executions in an email to Reuters. “China’s use of the death penalty as a political tool does not address the root of the problem,” he said, adding that “China continues to make use of [the Kunming] incident to incite discrimination against Uyghurs.”
Even using the word “terrorism” to describe the Kunming attack became a point of contention, with Xinhua angrily protesting against “certain Western news organizations” putting the term terrorism in quotation marks. The U.S. State Department likewise initially appeared reluctant to label the attack a terrorist act.