Updated at 1:00 p.m. ET on 2014-01-08
A court in China's Inner Mongolia region has handed down jail sentences of 1-2 years to six herders who protested the use of local grazing land by a Chinese forestry company, although four have been released on suspended sentences and two remain behind bars because they refuse to plead guilty, rights groups and relatives said Monday.
Herders Tulguur and Tugusbayar were each handed a two-year jail term each on charges of "sabotaging production management" by the Ongniud (in Chinese, Wengniute) Banner People's Court in a document dated Dec. 31, although their relatives weren't informed until days later, they said.
Fellow protesters Nasandalai, Munkhbayar, and Ulaanbar were given jail terms of 18 months apiece, each suspended for two years, on the same charges, while Jargalt was handed a one-year jail term suspended for one year, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an emailed statement.
All four released men were freed after pleading guilty and paying "compensation" to the Chinese state-run Shuanghe Forestry Co.
The six men were initially detained on June 24 after they tried to obstruct the company, which had illegally occupied their grazing lands in Ongniud's Bayannuur Gachaa village community, SMHRIC said.
Tulguur's wife Sayangaar said the family rejected the sentence. "This is unjust, and we don't accept it," she said.
She said Tulguur's family members had been refused permission to visit him in the detention center. "We can't visit within 10 days [of the sentencing]," she said.
Sayangaar said she was concerned for her husband's health after he received a visit from his lawyer in the detention center, but that requests for medical attention had been turned down the authorities.
"They both still maintain that corruption was involved, so they won't let them out," she said. "They are planning to appeal ... and the lawyers are drafting the appeal right now."
Court acted 'wrongly'
Defense lawyer Zhou Guohua said the sentences were unjust.
"We argued that they were innocent, but they sentenced them as if they were guilty," Zhou said in an interview on Sunday. "Of course we have an opinion about that. We think that this case should have been a civil dispute and not a criminal case, and that it should have been resolved using civil means."
"We think that [the court] did the wrong thing, and that the sentences are unjust."
Meanwhile, Turgusbayar's sister Shabushe said the family didn't receive the sentencing document, dated Dec. 30, until Saturday.
She said the family maintained his innocence and are also planning to appeal his sentence.
"He is innocent, but they say he is guilty and we are just ordinary people," she said. "So I guess we'll appeal now."
The herders' trial sparked a protest earlier this month by nearly 200 local residents who called for their release outside the Ongniud Banner government, where officials refused to meet with petitioners.
"We all went to ask exactly what crime they were supposed to have committed, for an explanation, but they never told us anything clearly," petitioner Hulji said.
"They just said something vague, and basically didn't take much notice of us; they wouldn't meet to talk with us," he said.
Several protesters who attended protests outside government buildings in Ongniud Banner and Ulaanhad (Chifeng) city on Dec. 30 and 31 were beaten up by police, SMHRIC said.
Lawyers said the released herders' status means they will now likely be closely watched by the authorities, as a suspended jail term acts as a form of probation, and can be a way of deterring activists and dissidents from further involvement in activities the government doesn't like.
Clashes between Chinese companies and ethnic Mongolian herders protesting the exploitation of their grasslands are increasingly common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Rights activists say grasslands on which the herding communities depend for a living are constantly being taken over, forcing them to take action to stand up for their rights.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, complain of environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.