Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have handed down jail terms of up to five years to dozens of ethnic Mongolian herders who blockaded a construction site on their traditional grazing lands.
The sentences were handed down to 35 herders from the Ulzeimurun Sum (a township-like administrative division) in Bayan-Tumen Gachaa following a mass trial at the Zaruud Banner People's Court, near Tongliao city.
The herders were found guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and gathering to assault government departments," and handed jail terms ranging from six months to five years, the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) reported on its website.
The herders were accused of blocking construction traffic during the building of interstate highway 208 between Ulzeimurun Sum and Lubei township last May, local media reported.
And, according to Zaruud Banner TV, "Jin Haixia and Wu Tiedan rallied the people via WeChat to come to gather illegally in front of the Police Dispatch Station to urge the release of the detainees."
“They staged a demonstration of protest and picketing in front of the Police Dispatch Station for 15 hours, disturbing the [the work of government departments], causing an adverse social effect, and violating state laws," the broadcaster said.
Wu Tiedan was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, Jin Haixia to four, and Borjigin Tsengelt to three years, SMHRIC said.
Fellow protester Ulzeit received a jail term of two-and-a-half years, while Shuang Xi was jailed for two years, and Tsetenbat and Madu for a year and a half, it said.
Buyan and Sarantsogt received one year's imprisonment apiece,while the remaining 26 protesters were released after being handed six-month sentences, as time already served was taken into account, it said.
A relative of one of the herders, who asked to remain anonymous, said the charges were "groundless and trumped-up," and that the herders had done nothing but try to defend their land.
Residents of Bayan-Tumen Gachaa said the court had decided in favor of majority ethnic Han Chinese settlers in the region, in particular, the Xu family who migrated to the area from the eastern province of Anhui during the 1960s.
Crackdown on Mongolian herders
The family had expanded and become rich enough to control key economic sectors in the region, as well as to manipulate local government, police and courts by means of bribery, SMHRIC quoted a statement from local residents as saying.
Local media accused the herders of preventing the Xus from continuing to cultivate the land, causing an economic loss of 3,770 yuan.
"One of the major protests that the herders launched was against the Xu family-run road construction company that illegally occupied the local herders’ grazing land," the herders' statement said.
"The trial of 35 herders is an effort of the local authorities to accommodate the Xu’s demand to criminalize the protestors to prevent any further resistance from taking place," the statement said.
Without disclosing the details of the defendants, including their full names and sentence terms, the official TV news said, “With sufficient amount of evidences, all 35 defendants are convicted of the crimes that they were accused of being committed.”
Relatives and family members of the 9 imprisoned herders said they are denied to right to visit them in prison. Their health conditions and whereabouts remain unknown.
Calls to the Zaruud Banner People's Court rang unanswered on Wednesday.
SMHRIC spokesman Enghebatu Togochog told RFA that the mass sentencing came amid a crackdown on ethnic Mongolian nomadic herding communities within its borders by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"The persecution is getting worse and worse ... It's extremely unfair on the herding communities, because they are just trying to make a living, to fight for their land, for their legitimate rights and interests," he said.
He dismissed claims from the Zaruud Banner People's Court judge, who said the herders should have used "legal channels" to pursue their grievances.
"They petitioned and filed complaints about the situation, but they never received a response that they were satisfied with," he said. "In the end, the herders were left with no options, so they went and blockaded the construction site to stop the company from developing their grasslands. That's the sort of clashes that took place. This is a very common occurrence."
He called on the international community to pay close attention to the human rights situation in Inner Mongolia, "which is getting worse by the day."
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.