Chinese authorities on Tuesday detained dozens of people after hundreds gathered outside regional and provincial parliaments across the country, seeking redress for complaints against the government.
More than 40 petitioners converged at around 10 a.m. local time outside the provincial-level people's congress in the southwestern province of Sichuan on Tuesday, but were stopped some 500 meters from the building and taken away by police, one of the detainees said.
"We didn't get anywhere near it," Wang Shurong, a petitioner from Ya'an city in the western part of the province told RFA after being detained in a group of 43 people and taken to an unofficial detention center in Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu.
"We were about 500 meters away at an intersection, and there were so many police around the congress buildings, plainclothes and regular police," Wang said from the "holding center" used to hand would-be petitioners over to officials from their local governments.
"They won't let us leave. I asked the policeman what laws we had broken, and said that people need to eat, even in jail."
"We haven't eaten anything, and they've just left us here to get hungry," Wang added.
She said police were detaining the group until they were taken away by "interceptors," whose job it is to minimize complaints made to a higher level of government.
"We have to get released to officials from our hometowns," Wang said.
Wang said petitioners were responding to a notice on the website of the Sichuan provincial people's congress and its advisory body, the people's political consultative conference.
"They posted online to say that they welcomed applications from the general public to go and sit in the public gallery [during sessions]," Wang said.
"That's why we went there, but now they have put us in a holding center," she said.
In Shanghai, petitioner Gu Guoping said he saw a group of private security guards beat up a group of petitioners who went to protest against an alleged injustice outside the district people's congress in the city on Sunday.
"We were outside the Changning district people's congress, and there was a group of petitioners there trying to complain to delegates about injustices," Gu told RFA on Tuesday.
"They called the security guards, who beat up the petitioners, one of whom was injured and was lying on the ground."
"Two people tried to act as witnesses to the fact that the security guards were beating people, but then the two witnesses were detained after they all went to the police station," he added.
He said three of those detained were given seven-day administrative sentences, which can be handed down by police without the need for a trial.
China's growing army of petitioners, who often include evictees or farmers who have lost their land to development, as well as former public servants complaining of a lack of pensions, say they are repeatedly stonewalled, detained in "black jails," beaten and harassed by authorities if they try to take complaints against local government actions to a higher level.
Their cases are increasingly being rejected by the country's courts, and instead flood the government's "letters and visits" petitioning system with more than 20,000 new complaints a day, according to government figures from 2013.
The people's congresses are meeting across China in January and February to elect delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) annual session in Beijing in March.
They come amid escalating protests by ethnic Mongolian herders in recent weeks, including a suicide protest outside a village government building in Abag Banner (in Chinese, Abageqi) in the northwest of Inner Mongolia, which borders neighboring Mongolia.
Abag herder Tumur, 45, hanged himself from the gates of a government compound in Zargalant Sum, or village, (in Chinese, Jirigalangtu Sumu), his family said.
Tumur hanged himself on Jan. 19 in protest at "the authorities' illegal occupation of his grazing land," according to the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights and Information Center (SMHRIC).
The group said Tumur's suicide came after he had petitioned the local government for years for the return of his grazing land illegally occupied during a government initiative ostensibly aimed at alleviating poverty.
A relative who answered the phone at Tumur's home confirmed the report, but declined to comment on his death.
"This hasn't [been dealt with yet]," the relative said, adding that authorities in the prefectural capital Shiilin-hot had yet to respond. "If you want to know more, you should contact the Shiilingol League government."
Photos of Tumur's body were widely shared on major Chinese social media outlets, including WebChat, Sina, and Tencent sites, SMHRIC said.
Herder protests have emerged in recent weeks in Durbed Banner (in Chinese, Siziwangqi) Sunid Right Banner (in Chinese, Suniteyouqi), Urad Middle Banner (in Chinese, Wulatezhongqi) and Shiliin-hot, which administers Abag Banner.
Police in the regional capital, Hohhot, detained more than 30 people after a group of Durbed herders marched to the regional people's congress on Monday, sparking clashes with herders who resisted arrest, protesters said.
"There are a great many police here," Durbed herder Altanhuala told RFA in an interview on Monday. "I don't think we will [be able to get in to the public gallery."
She said the group had initially joined a long line of people hoping to get into the congress public gallery marshaled by 40-50 police on the street outside the building.
"There are 20-30 more policemen at the main doors," she said. In a later interview, she said the group had been turned away. "The police said we couldn't go there, but they didn't say much else," Altanhuala said.
According to SMHRIC, more than 30 herders were detained amid clashes with some 200 police outside the congress buildings at 4 p.m. local time on Monday.
"We were thrown into a bus and [are] on the way to our home Banner," Durbed herder Davshilt was quoted as saying.
Ethnic Mongolians, who make up almost 20 percent of Inner Mongolia's population of 23 million, have complained of widespread environmental destruction and unfair development policies in the region in recent years.
Huge tracts of grassland on which the traditionally nomadic herders depend for a living are constantly being taken over, forcing them to take action to protect their culture and livelihood, rights groups say.
Clashes between Chinese mining and forestry companies and herding communities are also increasingly common in the region, which borders the independent country of Mongolia.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.