HONG KONG—Chinese security forces charged with restoring order to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, fired on unarmed crowds during protests and rioting in March 2008 and abused Tibetans in detention, a New York-based rights group said in a report.
"Eyewitness accounts confirm that Chinese security forces used disproportionate force and acted with deliberate brutality during and after unprecedented Tibetan protests beginning on March 10, 2008," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in the report.
"Many violations continue today, including disappearances, wrongful convictions and imprisonment, persecution of families, and the targeting of Tibetans suspected of sympathizing with the protest movement," it said.
The report concluded that Chinese forces acted in contravention of these standards and broke international law—including prohibitions against disproportionate use of force, torture, and arbitrary detention, as well as the right to peaceful assembly.
Titled "'I Saw It with My Own Eyes:' Abuses by Security Forces in Tibet, 2008-2010," the report is based on more than 200 interviews with Tibetan refugees and visitors conducted immediately after they left China, as well as fresh, previously unreported, official Chinese sources, HRW said.
"Those abuses include the use of disproportionate force in breaking up protests, including firing live ammunition against unarmed protesters, large-scale arbitrary arrests, torture in custody, and of course pretty spectacular numbers of due-process violations particularly with respect to arbitrary arrests," HRW Asia advocacy director Sophie Richardson said in an interview.
"The main findings of the report, which is based on more than 200 interviews with Tibetans after they had left China, detail quite a broad range of abuses committed by the security forces both during and after the protests—which of course the Chinese government has denied," Richardson said.
Call for open trials
While the report detailed "hundreds" of trials being pushed summarily through China's judicial system in the wake of the unrest, Richardson said HRW still lacks total figures for the number of people dead, detained, or unaccounted for.
"We just don’t know," Richardson said, confirming that some people were never brought to trial, and had simply "vanished."
She called on the Chinese government to release any prisoners still being detained without charge, and for full and open trials for the other detainees.
She said the Chinese official version of the unrest, which characterized Tibetan protests as "smashing, burning and looting," was at least in part fictitious.
"The Chinese government accounts of what happened during and after the protests simply cannot be allowed to stand as the only narrative," Richardson said, calling for an investigation by the United Nations.
"What we’ve been trying to do is assess the Chinese government’s claim that its use of force was consistent with international standards," she said, adding that HRW had concluded that Beijing's account of the unrest "doesn't hold water."
Government reports say that 21 people died in Lhasa alone and several hundred were injured from March 14-15, 2008.
The HRW report details eyewitness accounts from Tibetans, including descriptions of security forces firing directly into unarmed groups of people.
"They were firing straight at people," one 24-year-old woman was quoted as saying. "They were coming from the direction of Jiangsu [Street] firing at any Tibetans they saw, and many people were killed."
A second eyewitness described how troops initially fired warning shots.
"At first, the soldiers fired in front of the crowd a few times to scare them, but the crowd thought they would not dare to actually fire and continued moving inside the compound," said a 24-year-old monk from Seda.
"At that point, the soldiers started to fire."
The Lhasa unrest was sparked by the suppression of a series of peaceful protests led by monks and nuns from major monasteries in the area, and brought huge security reinforcements to the region.
Protests spread to other Tibetan regions of China, recurring for several months after order was restored in Lhasa.
Original reporting by Richard Finney. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.