Clash Over Detained Petitioners

Xinjiang police scuffle with Uyghurs demanding the release of representatives in a land dispute.

2011-04-15
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aksumap305.jpg Police clashed with Uyghurs in Aksu prefecture's Aghu village.
RFA

A group of more than 50 Uyghurs clashed with police in northwest China Sunday after authorities forced five petitioners to return to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from Beijing.

The petitioners made up the fifth group of residents from Kucha county in Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture to seek assistance from the central government in a land dispute at the end of March before they were escorted by Kucha authorities back to the region on April 8 and detained.

Hesen Kurban, a resident of Aghu village where the land dispute occurred, said the clash took place at the Aghu Township Administration Yard when the group of Uyghurs had returned from a work detail and went to inquire about the detained petitioners.

“That day we were returning from forced labor conducted by the township. That is why we had tools like pickaxes and spades in our hands. The township police blocked us from entering the yard as we went to the door [of the office],” Kurban said.

According to Kurban, police believed the group planned to riot and reacted defensively, despite knowing that they were returning from work in the fields.

Polices began to shove and beat the villagers when they demanded to meet with local officials.

“The attitude and actions of the police clearly indicated that the government does not trust its people and is scared of them, because they tried to threaten us with weapons, including guns,” he said.

Nothing left to lose

Kurban said seven police officers holding various weapons were present at the incident, including five Han Chinese and two Uyghurs. He said that of the more than 50 villagers present, all were Uyghurs between the ages of 19 and 70.

“The police chief grasped my collar saying, ‘You are a troublemaker who is trying to disturb the order.’ The rest of the villagers crowded around me and pushed the police chief back saying, ‘You should protect the people rather than beat them!’”

“The pushing and arguing continued for a while before it began to get out of control. At that time, a villager named Jamal Tuniyaz charged the police chief and said, ‘Go ahead and shoot me,’ and shoved the chief,” Kurban said.

“The police chief backed up and put his gun away.”

When asked why he was willing to risk his life in confronting the police chief, Jamal Tuniyaz, 27, said the Uyghurs of Aghu had been pushed to the breaking point by local authorities.

“As far as I know, there are only a few places in the entire region that have implemented forced labor. We are one of the few villages to be subjected to the practice. We received electricity only last year, and now we have lost our farmland to railway construction,” Tuniyaz said.

“I think we don’t have much left to lose at this point. It’s got to the point where there is not much difference between life and death.”

Promise of release

Kurban said that while township authorities were unwilling to speak with the villagers directly, they did take the matter very seriously.

“I assumed that they were discussing the situation and asking for orders from higher-level authorities while we clashed with the police. As a result, the cell phones of the five detainees were reactivated after they had been blocked for a couple of days, and we were able to reach them over the phone,” Kurban said.

“They said they had just been released, so we decided to leave the township yard. Unfortunately, that night we were only able to see two of them,” he said.

“The others still remain at the Erzan Detention Center in Kucha, though no explanation was given of why they were held.”

Kurban said the clash ended peacefully and the police allowed the villagers to leave the yard. But four of them were questioned by county police officers over the next few days, and interrogations were continuing.

Rahman Obul, a police officer from the township confirmed the incident.

“Yes, the clashes continued for one and a half hours, but there were no serious injuries,” Obdul said.

“The situation is under control now.”

The chief of the Aghu township Chinese Communist Party, Wang Zhangyong, said authorities would not listen to the villagers’ appeals.

“Their demands are unacceptable, because they are supporting illegal petitioners,” Wang said before refusing to answer any further questions.

Land dispute

The petitioners had been in Beijing demanding proper compensation after local authorities allegedly withheld money a state-owned company paid residents for land it had purchased to construct a railway through Aghu village at the end of 2009.

Before construction began, the company had promised villagers payment of 57,000 yuan (U.S. $8,700) per mu (1 mu = 0.16 acres) of land.

According to the villagers, the company honored the agreement and paid the amount promised to Kucha county, but county and township officials withheld more than 50 percent of the compensation without providing an explanation.

The villagers were given 25,000 yuan (U.S. $3,800) per mu and only paid an additional 7,000 yuan (U.S. $1,070) after representatives traveled to Beijing on three occasions to bring a lawsuit against the local government.

Ethnic tensions

Millions of Uyghurs—a distinct, Turkic minority who are predominantly Muslim—populate Central Asia and the Xinjiang region.

Ethnic tensions between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese settlers have simmered for years, and erupted in riots in July 2009 that left some 200 people dead, according to the Chinese government’s tally.

Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness despite China's ambitious plans to develop its vast northwestern frontier.

Chinese authorities blame Uyghur separatists for a series of deadly attacks in recent years and accuse one group in particular of maintaining links to the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Reported and translated by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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