Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have detained more than 20 ethnic Mongolian herders following protests in recent weeks for giving interviews to foreign media organizations, a U.S.-based rights group said on Wednesday.
Police in Inner Mongolia's Urad Middle Banner, a county-level administrative division, are still holding four people on suspicion of "giving interviews to foreign news media and assisting those who have ulterior motives to frame and denounce the socialist regime," rights activists said.
"Most of the 20-some people they detained were released within 48 hours, but now there are four who are still in detention," local herder A Hong told RFA.
"Tuyaa was detained [on Tuesday]. She has a kid of four or five years old, and she was released [after 24 hours]," she said. "We don't know what is happening and the police have confiscated their phones."
"It's so hard. The stability maintenance is so strict here, and the police are putting huge pressure on the herding community."
The herding communities were informed of the detentions via the smartphone app WeChat by Zou Xinchao, head of Urad Middle Banner state security police, the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) reported on its website.
Among those detained were Saishingaa, 44, who like many ethnic Mongolians goes by a single name, who began a 15-day administrative sentence on March 4 for "resisting arrest and providing information to foreign news media and organizations," the group said.
Saishingaa's detention came after he submitted a series of lawsuits and appeals in a bid to reverse the appropriation of 980 acres of his former grazing land, accusing local officials of forging a document to take over the land.
He told the court in an appeal submission: "Local officials are blatantly violating laws and creating conflicts between the herders and the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party by intimidating and fooling the helpless herders."
Three days later, fellow herders and protesters Munkh and Tuyaa were detained by police as they staged a protest outside the offices of the Urad Middle Banner government, according to local residents.
Tuyaa was released after being held for 24 hours, but Munkh remains behind bars, where he is refusing food, herders said.
"Munkh is still in detention," a local herder who declined to be named told RFA on Wednesday. "He has high blood pressure, heart diseases, as well as pain in his legs, so he walks with a limp."
"His family are only allowed to take supplies to him; they're not allowed to visit him," the herder said.
A second herder who asked to remain anonymous said Munkh, who is in his 60s, is currently on hunger strike.
"People who went to the detention center said he is refusing food and water; he is just sitting there," the second herder said.
Fellow protester Zayaa said the three herders are among more than 20 detained during the past two weeks in Urad Middle Banner.
Some have been released, but an unknown number remain in police detention.
"Herders have been questioned as to who wrote the long banners we used at the earlier demonstration and who organized these protests," Zayaa said.
The detentions come after several weeks of protests by Urad Middle Banner herders, including sit-ins outside government buildings, over the loss of their traditional grazing lands to government officials or government-backed businesses.
On March 7, the same day that Munkh and Tuyaa were detained, local herder Wu Yanfang was also detained by officials in the regional capital, Hohhot, after going there to lodge an official complaint.
"I had just got on the long-distance bus, which was about to leave, and a couple of people from the Banner government got on, and said they would resolve my complaint for me," Wu said.
"I am now in a guesthouse in Baotou city," she said. "I am waiting here to see if they sort out my issue, but if not, I will continue with my plan to complain."
Wu, who also suffers from heart disease, said the officials who escorted her off the bus also took away all the documents she had amassed as evidence of official wrongdoing.
"They took away all my evidence," Wu said. "I still plan to complain to the central government [in Beijing] ... because the local government has either occupied or sold off our grazing lands, which belong to the ordinary people."
Ethnic Mongolian human rights campaigner Xinna said the Urad Middle Banner herders had suffered more than many in the region at the hands of official land grabs.
"They are only taking to the streets because they have no other option," Xinna said. "The authorities have banned them from grazing their livestock on the grasslands, so now they are dependent on subsidies to get by."
She said the authorities are stepping up pressure on traditional herding communities because the area has rich mining resources.
"The main vested interests gang up on the herders and take over their grasslands in a constant bid to make a profit," Xinna said. "The land changes hands and gets a new owner, who mines it and leaves, leaving the environment devastated."
"All of the local leaders have shares in these enterprises."
Reported by Wong Siu-san for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.