Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia are holding an ethnic Mongolian writer and teacher under criminal detention, a U.S.-based rights group said on Tuesday.
O. Sechenbaatar, 68, was detained along with a herder named Baldan at a protest near Lake Dalainuur in the region's Heshigten Banner, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a report on its website.
The two were handcuffed and taken to the Heshigten Banner police department, it said.
Sechenbaatar has been placed under criminal detention on suspicion of "obstructing officials in the course of their duty," it said. He is currently being held at the Heshigten Banner Detention Center.
"What worries us is that this is a criminal detention, not an ordinary administrative detention," fellow herder and activist Bao Guniang said via the social media platform WeChat.
"This means the authorities have already prepared criminal charges for Mr. O. Sechenbaatar."
Baldan was released after 10 hours, but Sechenbaatar remains in detention, SMHRIC said.
The detentions came after more than 200 local residents gathered outside government offices in Heshigten Banner's Darhan-uul Sum, or village, on April 12, in protest over changes in the management of grazing lands on nearby Dalainuur National Nature Reserve.
Local authorities had imposed a grazing ban on herding communities that cut off their access to traditional pasturelands, despite local herders saying they could use their indigenous knowledge to protect the land.
“We have lived on this land for hundreds of years and kept the perfect balance of man and nature without having the ignorant and profit-chasing Chinese to teach us,” Baldan said via WeChat following his release.
“What we are asking for is, leave us alone and let us manage our own environment," he said.
Local herders say Chinese companies and nonprofits have done far more ecological destruction than herding ever could.
"The government must withdraw these fishing companies and so-called ‘nature reserve’ entities that killed our wild life, depleted our water, and destroyed our land for profit,” Baldan said.
‘Just an excuse’
Sechenbaatar is the author of several books, including Spring Blossoms, Autumn of Tsunkh, Story of A Bald Thief, Heshigten Folklore, and Collection of Southern Mongolian Folklore Arts.
A former teacher at the Darhan-uul Hight School, he has also published hundreds of essays, poems, and lyrics in Mongolian language journals and magazines.
Sechenbaatar also hosted a number of WeChat groups to provide local Mongolian herders with a venue to discuss the pressing issues in their communities, including mining, environmental destruction, pollution, and herders’ protests, SMHRIC said.
"Obstructing official business is just an excuse," a relative of Sechenbaatar said in an audio recording after his detention.
He said the initial charge is likely just to hold him on, while the authorities gather evidence for more serious charges, including leaking state secrets and "sabotaging national unity."
Sechenbaatar's detention comes after police in the regional capital Hohhot detained three protesting herders from Tongliao city after they petitioned the authorities there over access to traditional grazing lands and other disputes.
Haaserdun, 53, Tegshibayla, 46, and Oobuuren, 37, from Chabutut Sum in Zaruud Banner were escorted home by local police and placed in administrative detention, fellow protesters told RFA earlier this month.
They were held for eight days for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
Calls to the complaints department of the Zaruud Banner government rang unanswered at the time.
Exile ethnic Mongolian activist Xi Haiming said such detentions are common in land disputes where herders are trying to stand up for their traditional way of life in the face of exploitation by Chinese-backed companies.
"These herders aren't rebelling, but using the petitioning system of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party," Xi told RFA. "They want the Communist Party to resolve these issues because their survival is at stake."
"They are now under a brutal colonial occupation and suppression," he said.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.