Authorities in the northwestern Chinese region of Ningxia have put on trial more than 30 ethnic minority Hui Muslims charged with "inciting violence" and "obstructing public duty," and are detaining the family of a prominent local Muslim at an unknown location, residents said on Tuesday.
Police in Tongxin county near Ningxia's Wuzhong city detained around 40 Muslim Hui people following riots last New Year's Eve sparked by the forced demolition of a local mosque.
While four have been released on bail, the remaining 36 detainees were formally arrested and tried at the Tongxin county People's Court on April 24, according to relatives.
A relative of one of the detainees surnamed Jin said the families hadn't received any official notification of their loved ones' whereabouts until March.
Those who stood trial had done so without access to a lawyer, said Jin, whose father, brother, and husband were among those tried.
Jin said six men had been tried for "incitement to violence" and "obstructing official duty," including Jin Kezhong, Jin Kecheng, Jin Yuxiang, Jin Keshan, and Jin Haijun.
The remaining 30 had included four women and a 17-year-old youth, all of whom were charged with "obstructing official duty."
They were represented by a lawyer assigned to them by the government, she said.
"The day we went [to the court], there were police and armed police and fire trucks and ambulances there as well," Jin said. "There were probably around 20 or 30 people standing outside the door."
She said a verdict had yet to be announced.
"[The judge] said that the court would adjourn, and the verdicts would be issued separately," Jin said, adding that any attempt by the defendants to speak in their own defense was immediately cut short by court officials.
She said local people who had been detained previously said that police had already prepared a confession, and simply required their signature.
Calls to the Tongxin county People's Court went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the family of Jin Haitao, a resident of Taoshan village, where the riots took place, said he and his family were being held in an unknown location after they were taken away from the northern province of Hebei, where Jin Haitao had found a job in a mosque.
"We can't get in touch with him, and I have been asking around for news of him," said a relative of Jin Haitao.
"I was told recently by one police officer that he had probably been detained over the incident ... but other people said he hadn't," he said.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said the trial appeared not to have been conducted according to Chinese law.
"They were not allowed to fully exercise their right to a defense," Liu said. "Maybe they had something important to say, but they weren't allowed to say it."
"It is very common for cases like these to have problems with due process," he added.
The December clashes between Hui Muslims and police in Taoshan village drew rare criticism from a key global Islamic group.
In a statement, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned the violence and the "heavy-handed" response of local authorities.
The group also called on China to respect the rights of Muslims to construct and maintain their places of worship and to freely attend religious services.
According to a Hong Kong-based rights group, the riots were sparked when hundreds of Muslims in Taoshan village tried to prevent the demolition of a mosque they had paid for.
Some reports said at the time that several people died, a claim which officials later denied.
Hundreds of residents in Taoshan village confronted police armed with tear gas, truncheons, and knives, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported.
Jin Haitao gave interviews to foreign media organizations at the time, telling Hong Kong's Cable Television that local Hui Muslims had spent more than eight million yuan (U.S. $1.27 million) on the mosque, only to have it torn down by the authorities.
He said police had attacked local people with "police batons and bayonets," but that villagers had not fought back.
The Hui are culturally more similar to mainstream Han Chinese than Xinjiang's Turkic-speaking Uyghur people, but retain some Islamic customs like avoiding pork and circumcising male children.
Ethnic tensions have nonetheless flared in recent years, notably in riots following a 2004 car accident involving a Han Chinese and a Hui Muslim in the central province of Henan.
And in 1993, a cartoon ridiculing Muslims led to police storming a mosque taken over by Hui in northwestern China.
China's atheist ruling Party maintains a tight grip on religious activities, in spite of promising freedom of religion via the Constitution, allowing only officially recognized religious institutions to operate.
In Xinjiang, Uyghur children are banned from attending mosques until they reach 18, and are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, Uyghurs say.
Xinjiang Party religious affairs officials involve themselves in every aspect of religious life, including approving sermons in mosques and dictating which interpretations of the Quran will be used.
China's official media rarely report incidents involving ethnic conflict and, when they do, are usually under orders to use only approved dispatches from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.