A human rights group on Monday accused Chinese authorities of trying to cover up the death of an ethnic Mongolian herdsman hit by an oil truck as he was protesting the destruction of traditional grazing land in Inner Mongolia.
"With apparent nervousness, the Chinese authorities are attempting to control public opinion through their Internet police system," the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), which closely monitors the human rights situation in China's northern region of Inner Mongolia.
It identified the man who died on Thursday as Zorigt, saying the herder was an active part of a community trying to protect their grasslands—the heartland of Mongol culture—in Huhtolgoi Gachaa in Uushin (in Chinese, Uxin) Banner (county).
The herdsmen "have been struggling to protect their land and livestock from unregulated Chinese oil and gas transport trucks that drive roughshod through their grazing lands and kill livestock," the SMHRIC said.
"During a number of confrontations between the local Mongolian herders and the Shuurhei Oil-Gas Field transporters, Zorigt and others were beaten and hospitalized several times previously," it alleged.
In May, the death of a herder named Murgen, who was run over after a standoff with mining company truck drivers in Shiliin Gol, sparked the worst demonstrations in two decades in Inner Mongolia, a region bordering Mongolia—a separate, independent country.
The protesters, including university students, called for the protection of herders’ rights and condemned the exploitation of grasslands.
The authorities cracked down on the mass protests by dispatching troops and confining students to campuses. A truck driver was convicted of causing Murgen's death and sentenced to death.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up nearly one-fifth of Inner Mongolia's 24 million people, claim their grazing lands have been ruined by mining and desertification.
China's official news agency Xinhua said Zorigt's death on Thursday was caused by a "traffic accident," saying the truck driver, named Li Youliang, saw a man, whose name was given in Chinese as Zhaorigetu, blocking the road.
Li drove around him, but when Zhaorigetu saw that the truck did not stop, he got on a motorcycle and chased the truck, the report said.
After following the truck for a distance, Zhaorigetu sped up to pass the truck on the right side and collided with it. Zhaorigetu was taken to the hospital and died of his injuries hours later, according to Xinhua.
But the SMHRIC charged that Xinhua tried "to prevent possible unrest by the Mongolians" and "preemptively reported on the event, calling it a 'traffic accident.'"
But it said that the same report, in an apparent contradiction, also revealed that “the driver has already been taken into custody by the Uushin Banner Public Security Bureau in accordance with the law for his involvement in a ‘crime of traffic disturbance.’”
The report, it said, has "disappeared" from other major domestic Chinese language Internet news sites, where it had been republished.
Citing unconfirmed reports, the SMHRIC also said that the case is being handled "swiftly and quietly" by a special task force dispatched from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security in a bid to prevent new unrest among Mongolians.
Many complained that the Chinese authorities’ promises to respect herders’ rights "have never been achieved," it said.
Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Rachel Vandenbrink.