Authorities in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia have detained five ethnic Mongolian herders who protested the takeover of their grazing lands for development and demanded local officials be democratically elected.
Odongerel, Todoo, Urnaa, Delgertsetseg and Jargalt were detained by police in Urad Middle Banner (in Chinese, Wulate Zhongqi) in the west of the region on Jan. 11, a U.S.-based rights group said on Tuesday, adding that Jargalt later escaped from police, still wearing his handcuffs.
The detentions came two days after herders gathered in the Banner capital, Haliut township, to demonstrate for the return of their grazing lands, the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an emailed statement.
After the protests were ignored, herders began planning protests in the regional capital Hohhot and in Beijing, activists said.
"We were planning to go to Hohhot but the police detained the herders on the same day, and released four of them," released herder and fellow activist Burenzayaa told RFA's Cantonese Service.
"Two were held on administrative detention for 15 days, without even an arrest warrant," he said. "Two were released after more than 12 hours, while another was locked up for two days and another for nearly two days."
He said the local community is incensed that the government had quietly begun leasing off tracts of grassland without consulting the herders after their lease with the government expired in 2008.
One of the released herders said the experience of police detention had been very frightening.
"I am very afraid of the local government now," she said. "I can't tell you why that is now, because they are already curbing my freedom."
"They don't want me to take my complaint to the next level, and they won't let me go anywhere, so I am just stuck at home now," she said. "It's not convenient for me to talk."
Call for elections
As well as complaining about the loss of their grazing lands, herders are also calling for transparent elections to Gachaa-level official posts, which rank between banner—the administrative equivalent of a county—and village.
"The herders felt that a fair election would at least hold out the possibility that their rights would be protected through individuals who would honestly represent their interests," the SMHRIC statement said.
Another Urad herder, Munkhee, said the villagers were demanding a return of grasslands allocated for grazing to be returned to them.
"We want the officials to return the land they have occupied," he said. "The herders here are very angry about it, as they are in other places too."
He said the officials had taken over the grazing land illegally, mostly for the purposes of mining.
"They have illegally leased it to companies for mining exploitation," Munkhee said.
Calls to the Urad Middle Banner police department went unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
Protest leader Odongerel has been repeatedly detained, formally arrested and sentenced to jail by the Urad Middle Banner police since she started organizing herders' protests seven years ago, SMHRIC said.
In November 2012, she was handed an 18-month sentence to "re-education through labor" in a Hohhot labor camp for "gathering a crowd to create a disturbance" and "illegal petitioning" in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Apart from the requisitioning of their grazing lands for development, the herders accuse local officials of a deliberate policy of retaliation towards more outspoken activists, whose household registration status has been changed, affecting their access to services like healthcare and education, SMHRIC said.
They have also hit out at the destruction of local grasslands and the pollution of natural environment by Chinese settlers and mining companies, it said.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.