Authorities in China’s Xinjiang region detained more than 100 ethnic minority Uyghurs who took part in mass protests this week against the detention of women and middle school girls for wearing headscarves, as local officials confirmed that at least two protesters have been shot dead
Police on Tuesday fired on protesters as they threatened to storm a government building in Alaqagha township in Aksu prefecture’s Kucha county following the detention earlier that day of up to 25 Uyghur women and girls who had refused government instructions to uncover their faces partly covered by their headscarves.
At least five protesters were struck by gunfire, “with two left dead at the scene,” said Alaqagha village leader Ehmet Memet, speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service.
“I couldn’t do anything when the demonstration started. I just watched the incident from beginning to end,” Memet said, adding that police removed the bodies of the dead and wounded “as soon as an ambulance could arrive.”
After the crowd swelled at one point to “over a thousand,” officials allowed the detained women to leave the building through a rear door, Tuniyaz Memet, a local village chief, told RFA.
“But the people still continued to express their anger … throwing stones, bottles, and bricks into the building’s courtyard,” said Memet, who had earlier helped lead government workers in the day’s street-check for those wearing headscarves.
Protesters especially demanded the release of a Uyghur villager, Ibrahim Turdi, who had been taken into custody by police after coming to the aid of Uyghur women confronted for wearing scarves, Memet said.
When officials proved unable to control the crowd, armed police arrived at about 4:30 p.m., Memet said.
“Enver Yasin, chief of the state security team, first fired into the air as a warning,” Memet said. “Then they shot at people who were trying to escape.”
Gunfire continued throughout the day and into the night as police conducted neighborhood sweeps to search for protesters who had been photographed by security cameras, Memet said.
“But I don’t know if the shots I heard were aimed at suspects or were only fired as warnings,” he said.
More than a hundred Uyghurs were eventually captured, with a total of 79 taken into custody on the first day, sources said.
“Though police sent me a list of names of 26 people from my village, I could help them capture only six,” said Tohti Omer, chief of Alqagha township’s Village No. 3.
“We couldn’t find any others on the list. It seems that they escaped or went into hiding somewhere out of fear of being detained and tortured,” he said.
One man, Elqem Memtimin, 23, had already been shot dead, though his body had not yet been returned to his family, Tohti said, adding,“More than 20 parents have called me and asked for my help, since their sons did not return last night.”
“I know that six high school students from my village were captured by police and sent to the county detention center, but I don’t know how many students may have been detained from other villages,” he said.
Uyghur rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinjiang, including curbs on Islamic practices and the culture and language of the Uyghur people.
Many Uyghurs say headscarves are a marker of Uyghur rather than Muslim identity. Chinese authorities, however, discourage the wearing of headscarves, veils, and other Islamic dress in the region.
“For the world community, it may be hard to believe that officials are involving themselves in people’s personal lives like this,” said exile World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer, speaking to RFA in an interview.
“But this is the reality—not just in Kucha, but elsewhere in East Turkestan,” said Kadeer, using the name preferred by many Uyghurs for their ancestral homeland.
And though state-controlled media in China were quick to report an attack on Thursday in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi that left 31 dead, they ignored Tuesday’s “bloody incident in Kucha,” Kadeer said.
Media must display “objectivity and impartiality” in their coverage of the region, she said.
Chinese authorities blamed suicide bombers for the attack at a crowded market in Urumqi that also injured 94.
Authorities in Xinjiang on Friday announced a one-year anti-terrorism campaign in response to the Urumqi attack, the deadliest violence to hit the region since ethnic riots in July 2009 left 200 dead, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Richard Finney.