Fatal Tiananmen Crash Sparks Reprisals, Security Clampdown

2013-11-04
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Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Beijing, Nov 1, 2013
AFP

Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have detained more than 50 ethnic minority Muslims in the wake of a fatal car crash in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, while city authorities have tightened security and surveillance of a prominent Uyghur scholar.

Authorities in Xinjiang's northern Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture’s Ghujla (in Chinese, Yining) city have detained 53 Muslim Uyghurs since last Monday's crash and fire in front of the iconic portrait of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, which killed five people and injured dozens of others, a spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress said.

"We are getting information from Ghulja city in Ili prefecture saying that the Chinese government has set up more than 700 checkpoints in the city, mostly in residential areas where there is a dense population of Uyghurs," group spokesman Dilxat Raxit said in an interview on Monday.

The Ili prefecture lies west of Xinjiang's Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture, where the sports utility vehicle driver Hesen and his family hailed from.

Raxit said two people of those held were being held under criminal detention, while the rest had been fined or given "re-education" sessions.

Raxit said the crash had also sparked a widespread security clampdown in southern Hotan prefecture, where three Uyghurs had been detained after refusing to cooperate with police searches of their car.

"They were detained by Hotan police for obstructing police in the course of their duty, and charged with distributing illegal religious propaganda through the ornaments dangling inside their car," he added.

Raxit said Uyghurs elsewhere in China, including Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, had also been targeted for raids and searches by police, with 93 Uyghurs detained in Beijing alone, with no reason given by the authorities.

Cellphones snatched

Ilham Tohti, an economics professor at Beijing's Central Nationalities University and founder of the Uyghur Online website, said he had been followed by plainclothes police in a car over the weekend as he took his family to meet his mother at the airport, who rear-ended his car, terrifying its occupants.

"At first we didn't realize what was going on, but then they got out of their car and snatched away my wife's cell phone, and deleted all the photographs inside it," Tohti said in an interview on Monday.

"Then they gave it back and snatched my cell phone. They told us very clearly that they had deliberately crashed into our car...and they threatened to kill me in a car crash," he said.

Tohti said he believed the attack was a form of retaliation after he gave interviews to foreign media.

"They said, 'so you think you're something special, all over the media...we'll kill you in a car crash,'" he said.

"I can't believe that servants of a government, law enforcement personnel, could behave that way."

He said the police had left the scene precipitately, driving on the pedestrian sidewalk, after getting a phone call.

In an interview with RFA last week, Tohti had called on the government to reveal details behind its allegation that the attack was a planned and organized terrorist attack on the heart of the capital.

Revenge attack

Sources told RFA's Uyghur Service last week that the driver of the SUV may have been on a deadly revenge attack after losing a family member in communal riots and a brother in a mysterious traffic accident.

Usmen Hesen lost a relative during the deadly 2009 ethnic riots between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in the regional capital Urumqi, a listener told RFA Uyghur Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another source—Hesen's school classmate—claimed his younger brother had died in a mysterious traffic accident several years ago that had been blamed on the majority Han Chinese or the Chinese authorities.

The RFA listener, who claims to know Hesen's family, said that he may have plowed his flaming SUV into a crowd at Tiananmen Square to avenge the "disappearance" of his family member following the July 5, 2009 riots in China’s worst ethnic violence for decades.

The car crash in Tiananmen Square killed Hesen, 33, and his wife and mother, both of whom were in the vehicle, in what the Chinese authorities called a "violent terrorist attack."

Beijing on Friday blamed a militant Islamist group for the jeep crash.

Meng Jianzhu, head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's powerful politics and legal affairs committee, said the little-known East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was responsible for the attack.

Beijing slams foreign media

And China's Foreign Ministry on Monday hit out at foreign media for reporting on possible grievances suffered by the SUV driver and Uyghurs in general.

Uyghur exiles, rights groups and some experts have cast doubt on the official accounts, while foreign reporting of the incident has discussed whether Beijing's policies in Xinjiang led to the incident.

"Some people have linked the violent terrorist act of crashing into innocent civilians and tourists with China's ethnic and religious policy and have even slandered China's ethnic and religious policy," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing on Monday. "This is connivance with terrorists."

"We express our strong disapproval," he said, when asked about media reports disputing the police's account of the incident.

"China consistently opposes any form of terrorism and opposes double standards on this issue," Hong added. He urged the media to take an "objective and fair" stance, adding that "any person with a conscience should condemn" the incident.

Meanwhile, state broadcaster CCTV and the Global Times, a popular tabloid with strong ties to the Communist Party, both accused U.S. news network CNN of distorting the facts.

"The article may reflect the opinion and attitude of a certain number of Americans. But it is of a vile nature to present such a view at the mainstream media," the Global Times said in an editorial on Monday.

CNN published an op-ed last week, questioning whether the incident "was a well-prepared terrorist act or a hastily assembled cry of desperation from a people on the extreme margins of the Chinese state's monstrous development machine".

CNN, in a statement, said the article was simply an opinion piece.

China's mostly Muslim Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination and oppressive religious controls under Beijing’s policies.

Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as East Turkestan.

Xinjiang, which came under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan Republics in the 1930s and 1940s, has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years as Beijing tightens security measures and extends house-to-house raids targeting Uyghur families.

ETIM seeks independence for the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United Nations.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.