An ethnic Mongolian herder in China's northern region of Inner Mongolia has been detained for the murders of four people following a dispute over sheep.
Unench was detained by police on Nov. 25 at his hometown in Horchin Left Middle Banner (a county-like division) after fleeing there from his place of work in the region's Left Uzumchin Banner, nine hours after an altercation with his employers over the condition of the sheep he tended escalated into violence.
Unench had been hired as a shepherd by a family surnamed Wei near Uzumchin Left Banner's Ulgai township.
The family had previously abused Unench, physically and verbally, and threatened to cut off his salary if the sheep under his care didn't start to gain weight, the New York-based Southern Mongolia Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC) said in a statement on its website.
A local ethnic Mongolian resident confirmed to RFA the account of the fight between Unench and his employees.
"It was an ethnic Mongolian youth called Unench," he said. "He killed four people: Wei Jianqi, Wei Jianchen, Wei Jianguo and An Xiaoping."
He said this year had been a very dry one in Left Uzumchin Banner.
"The sheep were all very thin, and there were already several altercations between the Wei family and Unench before [the killings]," the resident said.
Calls to the Ulgai township government offices rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
'Ethnic cleansing' alleged
The killings have sent shockwaves through China's 5.8 million-strong ethnic Mongolian community, who have long complained of widespread environmental destruction, violent evictions from traditional grazing lands and unfair development policies in the region.
Ethnic Mongolian dissident Hada has called the routine eviction of herders from their traditional grazing lands, often in the name of ecological protection, part of a calculated program of ethnic cleansing in the region.
He told RFA in a recent interview that Unench's enraged reaction came against a background of routine violence and oppression employed by government-backed Han Chinese company employees and farmers against the indigenous population.
"I wrote a year ago ... that if they don't back off from these methods, and find reasonable ways of managing disputes, that things would start to get dangerous [in the region]," Hada told RFA on Monday.
"These killings are the direct result of a colonial mentality on the part of the authorities, and a form of economic growth that relies on ethnic cleansing," Hada said.
"They are the direct result of the destruction of [ethnic Mongolians'] nomadic way of life, and the outcome of the collective oppression of an entire people," said Hada, who is currently under house arrest following his 19-year incarceration at a police apartment in the regional capital Hohhot.
"Incidents like this are going to keep on happening, and they are going to get bigger and bigger in scale," he warned.
Hada's wife and fellow rights activist Xinna said Unench was a young man from a background of extreme poverty who had been hired to take care of the sheep.
"They had repeatedly terrorized him and docked his pay, and bullied him all the time," she said. "This young lad suddenly had a fit of rage and killed them all. Then he went back to his hometown."
Several photos released by the Chinese authorities show that Unench suffered from nose bleeding and other injuries on his face, head and hands, SMHRIC reported.
'National hero' treatment
It said the images suggest that he was either severely beaten during the dispute or was tortured by the police after the arrest, or both.
Poems, essays and statements dedicated to Unench have appeared on social media, hailing him as a "national hero," SMHRIC said.
In them, Unench is compared to fellow former Horchin Left Middle Banner resident Gaadaa Meiren, who died in 1931 trying to defend Mongolian territory from encroachment by Chinese forces, it said.
An unnamed source in the region confirmed the reports of online praise for Urench.
"Everyone is now lauding this Unench guy online," he said. "We don't yet know exactly what took place, but I'm guessing that it will become clear during the course of the trial."
An anonymous statement issued by ethnic Mongolians circulating on social media platforms said the murders were not a simple, criminal case.
"This is an ethnic conflict between the Mongolians and Chinese," SMHRIC quoted it as saying.
It added: "The key question is whether the suspect’s life was in danger during the dispute."
Clashes between mining or forestry companies backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and herding communities are now common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
"Since the Chinese colonial occupation started in 1949, the ... Mongolians have always been the victim of the Chinese state terror and target of violent abuses by Chinese settlers," SMHRIC quoted Inner Mongolia People's Party president Dolgion Khatgin as saying.
He said the brutality of Chinese rule had forced ethnic Mongolians into violence "to defend their survival and dignity."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.