Chinese authorities in the northern region of Inner Mongolia have formally arrested at least three ethnic minority Mongolian university lecturers following mass protests last month, and have detained dozens more informally, an overseas rights group said.
"A lot of university lecturers have been detained," said Nahubisgalat, an ethnic Mongolian Chinese national currently living in Japan who founded the "Free Southern Mongolia" website. "There are at least three lecturers who have been formally detained."
He said "several dozen" students and lecturers had been taken away from universities in Inner Mongolia after thousands of students and ordinary residents took to the streets of Hohhot and Xilinhot last month calling for better rights protection for Mongolians and their traditional grasslands.
Students at the region's universities were under a strict curfew lasting from Saturday to Wednesday, said residents of the region, where Beijing has deployed a huge security presence in response to last month's demonstrations.
The protests were sparked by the death of a herder named Murgen who was run over by a mining company truck during a standoff between drivers and local people.
Nahubisgalat said he knew the three lecturers—all from universities in Hohhot—personally. "The authorities are accusing them of using SMS messages to transmit information and to incite the students to take part in the demonstrations," he said.
"That is the charge under which they are being arrested."
Curfew in place
Students in the region reported a curfew via the popular microblogging service Twitter, saying that they were only allowed to leave campus between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m. each evening, and must sign out and back in as they come and go.
An employee who answered the phone at the offices of the Inner Mongolia University in Hohhot said that the total lock-down of regional campuses was now at an end, however.
"The lock-in measures have now ended," he said. But he added: "Students have to register if they want to leave campus."
Asked if there were still armed police patrolling and guarding the streets, he answered: "Yes, right now they are still there."
Enhebatu Togochog, spokesman for the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), said his group estimates that at least 90 people are still being held in both the western Shiliingol League area around Xilinhot city, and Hohhot.
"After the protest marches in Hohhot on May 30 and 31, the authorities detained at least 50 people," he said, adding the number to an estimated 40 detained in Shiliingol following earlier protests there.
"The martial law conditions have relaxed somewhat," he said. "But there are still a lot of police and troops there, both in Hohhot and other place, especially Shiliingol League."
Former Shiliingol resident Wang Ning, now living in New Zealand, said some people's cell phone services had been reconnected following a communications blackout.
"Some of the students' mobile phones are now reachable, but none of them dares to talk about anything," Wang said.
"Controls on Internet traffic are still in place, however, and there has been no let-up in surveillance of the students."
Local authorities have pulled the plug on university bulletin boards and chatrooms since the protests began, and blocked or heavily censored popular chatroom and microblogging sites like QQ, Tencent and Sina Weibo.
Regional Party secretary Hu Chunhua, widely tipped as a rising star within China's ruling Communist Party, has promised dialogue with protesters while maintaining an iron grip on the region.
Germany-based Xi Haiming, chairman of the Inner Mongolian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said the government's conciliatory statements were deceptive.
"The Communist Party is trying to hoodwink international public opinion and people of good conscience," Xi said. "On the face of it, Hu Chunhua has gone to Shiliingol for so-called dialogue, which seems like an enlightened way to proceed."
"But they began settling scores [with activists] well before the anniversary of June 4."
Local sources said the authorities were still sending out mass text messages to the local population, saying that the Shiliingol League People's Procuratorate had already filed a criminal case against the truck driver who is charged with killing Murgen.
The texts said that the Murgen trial would begin on Wednesday, and that the authorities were also expediting the prosecution of a forklift truck driver suspected of running over and killing an ethnic minority Manchurian youth named Yan Wenlong during a similar standoff over mining pollution.
Rights groups said the protests were about more than the deaths of two local people, however, reflecting a deep and widespread anger over continuing exploitation of the region's grasslands, the heartland of Mongol culture.
The herders are calling for an end to open-cast mining, or strip-mining, of coal in their pastures.
Xilinhot, with a population of 177,000, lies on top of vast and as yet untapped coal reserves estimated at 1.4 trillion metric tons, enough to power energy-hungry China for hundreds of years, experts say.
Environmentalists say strip-mining is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of mining, destroying the surface ecosystem over a wide area, creating noise and vibration, and releasing pollutants into the air.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Tian Yi for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.