Authorities in northwestern China have said that a Han Chinese suspect in the murder of a seven-year-old Uyghur boy is suffering from mental problems, but the child’s family and a religious leader contend that the explanation is a ruse to prevent revenge attacks.
The official statement on the killer’s motive also drew condemnation from a Uyghur rights group in exile, which said that a lack of transparency in the brutal killing would exacerbate tensions in the area and that authorities must address underlying issues between Han Chinese and mostly-Muslim Uyghur residents.
A 52-year-old Han Chinese man was arrested in connection with the March 21 killing of the boy, Enkerjan Ariz, from Pichan (in Chinese, Shanshan) county in Xinjiang’s Turpan prefecture.
He had been playing with two other children near a brick kiln the man managed in Dighar village before he was hacked to death, police said.
According to police, the Han Chinese man had forced Enkerjan Ariz into his home and hacked him to death in March after he believed that the boy and his friends had come to steal something from the brick kiln.
An official of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee of Pichan told RFA’s Uyghur Service last week that “the [suspected] killer has a mental problem” and insisted that the murder was “not related to the ethnic issue.”
Tensions run high between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang, where China’s worst ethnic violence in decades left at least 197 people dead in 2009, according to official figures.
“We have already issued official instructions about the incident to all the mosques in [Dighar, and nearby Lukchun and Tuyuq] villages,” the committee official said. “The situation is now normalized.”
An officer of the Lukchun police station also told RFA that the suspected murderer was suffering from “mental illness.”
But Abdulla Nuraji, deputy chief of the state-sanctioned Islamic Association of Pichan county, said members of the Uyghur community believed that the man had killed Enkerjan Ariz because of his ethnicity, hacking the boy in the head with a machete and chopping off four of his fingers.
“The authorities asked me to explain the event to the public and to prevent any violent revenge attacks against the Han Chinese in the county,” Abdulla Nuraji told RFA. “But the facts of the incident are clear and are so provocative; it is hard to calm the people.”
“More importantly, the government explanation for the suspect’s motive is inadequate and illogical. If he has mental problems, how could he manage a brick factory,” he said, adding that he had also called the police to ask for protection after the incident.
“All the facts indicate that he is a normal man who knew what he was doing.”
Uyghur residents of Pichan, angry over the March 21 killing, attempted to attack Han Chinese homes in the village at the time, prompting a police crackdown.
On the day of the funeral ceremony, a local leader of the ruling Chinese Communist Party promised the people that “the case will be handled quickly and the killer punished heavily,” but Abdulla Nuraji said authorities are now going back on their word.
“In order to prevent the rising of ethnic tension, now officials are attempting to prove the incident was accidental and not indicative of ethnic hatred by describing the killer as having mental illness,” he said.
“I support ethnic unity, I agree with the government’s intentions, but I don’t believe the official statement will have a positive effect on the current situation. If they say he has mental illness, how can they punish him as heavily as they promised?”
He urged authorities to handle the case “quickly” and to hand down a “fair punishment,” saying it is the best way to calm the public and reduce ethnic tension in Pichan.
He also said that authorities must solve the issue of land disputes, which he said is ultimately responsible for the tension between Han Chinese migrants to the area and Uyghurs who have farmed there for generations.
Residents said the incident had stirred up Uyghur anger over pollution and destruction of land from the brick kilns run by Han Chinese.
Call for transparency
Dolkun Isa, executive committee chairman of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), called on China “to disclose full and accurate information about the incident to the Uyghur people.
“Otherwise the situation will become worse, because hiding information leads to rumors and to more people being hurt and angered,” he said.
“The hacking to death of a 7-year-old boy is a not small event that can be hidden in this era of the Internet,” Isa told RFA.
“If you believe it was an accidental event, why won’t you allow the media to investigate and report it? Even your state media has closed its eyes to the incident.”
“In order to live safely, Uyghur people need to know what is happening around them—what kind of dangers they should avoid. Hiding information about the murdered boy is a clear example of a violation by China to the right of the Uyghur people to free information.”
Dolkun Isa also said that the Chinese government must consider that its policies in Xinjiang are contributing to these types of incidents and must be addressed as the source of regional ethnic unrest.
“At this stage, at least we can say that the incident was indirectly the result of mass Han Chinese emigration to Xinjiang,” he said.
The growing number of Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang has led to Uyghurs increasingly losing land and job opportunities to them. Han farmers also often benefit from generous government subsidies, according to their Uyghur counterparts.
Uyghurs in the region say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur. Translated by Shohret Hoshur. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.