Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET on 2013-05-23
Dozens of high-school students in China's troubled western Xinjiang region took to the streets in a rare protest over the right of Uyghur girls to wear traditional head-coverings in school, local residents said on Thursday.
Nearly 100 students from the Kizilsu (in Chinese, Kezhou) No. 1 High School in Xinjiang's Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) city marched out of the gates and onto the streets in anger on Wednesday after the school tried to enforce a ban on headscarves, they said.
"It was at 8:30 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. that they came out," a Uyghur restaurant owner in the same neighborhood as the school said.
"It was [because the school banned headscarves]," he added, when asked to confirm online reports.
He said had seen around 70 students take part in the demonstration, but no police had been visible at the scene.
Photos of the protest posted online showed a large group of young people wearing headscarves and traditional Uyghur embroidered caps gathered outside school gates.
"Sophomore high-school students from Kezhou High had a successful demonstration today over the issue of headscarves for girls," a tweet on the popular Baidu microblogging service said.
A second tweet said the school authorities had reacted by handing out a new, replacement headscarf to all female students.
"[They] said they would respect our customs," the tweet said.
An official who answered the phone at the school declined to comment.
"I don't know anything about this," the official said, before hanging up the phone.
A second Uyghur restaurant owner in the neighborhood said he had heard about the protest but did not see it himself.
"Most of the girls in that school wear a headscarf, while some of them do not," he said, adding that many students from Kezhou High School ate at his restaurant.
Fears of repercussion
Dilxat Raxit, Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), welcomed the school's response to the protest, but warned that repercussions could follow for those who took part.
"I think that the students' courage is laudable, but I am worried that the authorities will retaliate after the event," Dilxat Raxit said. "This sort of thing has happened in the past."
He called on the Chinese authorities to behave with unconditional respect towards the customs and cultural values of Muslim Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group that chafes under Beijing's rule.
"The Chinese government continually suppresses and provokes Uyghurs with these attacks on their mode of dress and their religious beliefs," Dilxat Raxit said.
"This has made the students extremely angry."
Earlier this month, students at a high school near Hotan, in the south of the region, walked out of class in protest at the lack of Uyghur-language signage on school premises.
They returned to class after the school authorities promised to install some.
Raxit said the southern part of Xinjiang was still under tight security following last month's violence that left 21 people dead in Maralbeshi (in Chinese, Bachu) county in Kashgar prefecture.
Police have stepped up spot-checks and raids in the wake of the violence, which Beijing has blamed on "terrorists," but which the WUC has said was triggered by such raids in the first place.
Tarim University students
Meanwhile in northwestern Xinjang's Aksu prefecture, authorities at Tarim University are preparing to try three of its students in secret after detaining around 12 of them in early May, the Uyghur Online website (Uyghurbiz.net) reported this week.
The website named the three men as Alimjan, Dilshat, and Ablimit, adding that at least two of those detained but not charged had since been released.
Repeated calls to the offices of Tarim University went unanswered during office hours this week.
However, a teacher at the school said he wasn't free to talk about the students' situation.
"All I can say is that they probably got involved in something, but right now we have no freedom of speech," he said.
A student at the college commented: "Basically, we don't talk about [sensitive topics]," he said. "It's not that we aren't allowed; it's that everyone avoids sensitive topics."
He said the university sometimes surveys the mood of students by issuing questionnaires or calling them in "for a chat."
Tarim University was built in 1958 by the army-backed Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, also known as the "bingtuan."
The People's Liberation Army production companies, or bingtuan, are units of command that enable Beijing to maintain key areas and exploit rich resources in the largely Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang, according to exile groups.
Uyghurs say they have long suffered ethnic discrimination, oppressive religious controls, and continued poverty and joblessness, blaming the problems partly on the influx of Han Chinese into the region.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and Gulchehre Keyum for the Uyghur Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.