Abdukerim Abduwayit, Gheni Yusup, Abdulla Mettohti, Adil Rozi, Nureli Wuxiu'er, Alim Metyusup and Tayirejan Abulimit were the first to be sentenced over the July 5 melee that left almost 200 people dead and more than 1,600 injured in Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital.
The ethnic rioting -- in which Uighurs, a Muslim minority with Turkic roots, lashed out against Han Chinese, the ethnic majority, for perceived prejudice and bigotry -- was the worst in decades for China and prompted weeks of retaliation and protests against the regional government.
Alim Seytoff, spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, said in a July 7 NewsHour report that tensions had been boiling for years due to the "Chinese government's political propaganda, indoctrination of the Chinese people and Chinese nationalism, and portraying Uighurs -- especially after 9/11 -- as terrorists, separatists and Islamic radicals."
"There is much racism going on," he said.
Xinhua, the state's news agency, reported that Abduwayit killed five people using a knife and pipe wrench, and then set fire to a building. Yusup led Mettohti, Rozi and Wuxiu'er in beating four people to death and injuring another. They looted and set fire to vehicles and shops, killing five people who were inside.
Metyusup and Abulimit also killed three people and stole their cell phones, Xinhua reported.
Monday's sentences were declared just days after two separate courts in southern China sentenced 11 people for participating in a toy factory brawl that sparked the bigger Xinjiang riot. The melee took place after Han workers alleged that their Uighur colleagues had raped a Han woman, the New York Times reported. After photos and videos of the fight were disseminated on the Internet, outraged Uighurs in Xinjiang turned to violence over the government's refusal to properly investigate the incident.
On July 5, the central square in Urumqi was filled with protesters demanding justice. The demonstrators wielded pipes, shovels and sticks. Hans chanted "Defend the country," while Uighur women complained that their men were being strip-searched and carted off without questioning.
Uighurs in Urumqi charged that the Chinese government under-counted the number of Uighurs killed during the uprising, while Hans countered that the government is actually covering up the atrocities committed by rioting Uighurs, according to the Times.
Han protesters returned to the streets in September amid rumors of further violence and called for the resignation of Wang Lequan, head of the regional Communist Party for 15 years, for mishandling the July 5 riot.
---- Compiled from wire reports and other media sources