Chinese authorities in Inner Mongolia have released on bail four ethnic Mongolian herders tried for public order offenses last month after they pleaded guilty, although two activists remain in a local detention center.
Jargalt, Ulaanbar, Munkhbayar and Nasandalai—all from the Bayannuur Gachaa village community of Shinsume township—were released following the Nov. 14 trial in eastern Inner Mongolia’s Ongniud Banner (in Chinese, Wengniu Teqi).
The remaining two herders, Tugusbayar and Tulguur, who organized a local protest against the exploitation of their grazing lands by a Chinese forestry company, are still being held in the Ongniud Banner Detention Center, the Southern Mongolia Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an emailed statement.
"I went to the court, and the chief judge told me that if they paid 5,500 yuan (U.S. $900) and pleaded guilty, that they would be released," Sarangowaa, wife of Tulguur, said in a recent interview with RFA.
"They said those were the conditions, and that he must plead guilty," Sarangowaa said.
She said the family had lodged an appeal at the beginning of December with the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, but that the appeal had been turned down on the basis that no judgement had yet been issued by the court in the initial trial.
"I may have to take this to the Banner government, or if they won't help us, to the municipal government," she said.
Plea and 'compensation'
Tulguur's defense lawyer Zhou Guohua said the herders had been released at different times in recent weeks.
"More than a month after the trial, the first to be released was Jargalt, who pleaded guilty and paid 5,000 yuan (U.S. $825) which was referred to as 'compensation'," he said.
"About eight days later, they let some more people out, making four in total," Zhou said. "According to the court's conditions, they had to plead guilty and pay compensation."
He said Tulguur and Tugusbayar remained in detention because they had refused to plead guilty to charges of "sabotage" and "destruction of property."
According to a copy of the charge sheet seen by RFA, Tulguur was accused of "directing the other herders to block the road with vehicles, obstructing Shuanghe Forestry Co. in its operations, and the destruction of property leading to economic losses."
Zhou said Tugusbayar and Tulguur were unlikely to be released anytime soon.
"If they refuse to plead guilty and refuse to pay the money, they'll probably stay there," he said.
He said the court had flouted legal time limits in the case, and had yet to issue a formal judgement in the case.
"Several [defense] lawyers have called up to ask about this, but the court is just dragging its feet; that's what they do in the Chinese legal system when they have problematic cases," Zhou said.
"They are letting people out on bail after a trial? Bail is something that happens before a trial," he said. "This goes against ordinary logic."
Repeated calls to Ulaanbar's cell phone rang unanswered on Sunday.
"The court and officials of the government refused to give any legal explanation as to why the case remains undecided," Sarangowaa was quoted as saying by SMHRIC.
"No word has been heard either from the court or from the detention center," she said.
Out on 'bail'
Zhou told SMHRIC that Chinese courts are obliged to issue a judgement on a case within three months of formal charges being read to a defendant in court.
"The People’s Court of Ongniud Banner is violating the law," SMHRIC quoted Zhou as saying.
"This is a lawless land where government officials are above the law," Zhou said.
Repeated calls to the Ongniud Banner People's Court went unanswered during office hours on Friday.
He said the released herders' status meant they would now likely be closely watched by the authorities.
"Bail" in China is sometimes used by police as a form of probation, and as a way of deterring further involvement in activists the government does not like.
All six men were detained by police in early June after a clash with Chinese workers from state-run company Shuanghe Forestry and formally arrested three weeks later.
On Sept. 13, the Ongniud Banner Public Security Bureau transferred the case to the Ongniud Banner People’s Procuratorate to prosecute the six herders.
Clashes between Chinese companies and ethnic Mongolian herders protesting the exploitation of their grasslands are increasingly common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Rights activists say grasslands on which the herding communities depend for a living are constantly being taken over, forcing them to stand up for their rights.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, complain of environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.