China Holds Uyghur Netizen Over Yarkand Massacre Claims

Map showing Yarkand in Xinjiang's Kashgar prefecture.

Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have detained an ethnic minority Uyghur man for spreading "rumors" after he alleged in an online post that Chinese security forces killed thousands of people in the troubled region’s Yarkand county earlier this month.

The 22-year-old man uploaded the article onto an overseas website, the official Tianshan news website reported on Monday.

Chinese state media reported that 96 people were killed in July 28 riots which erupted after Uyghur "terrorists" attacked a police station and government offices in Kashgar prefecture's Yarkand (in Chinese, Shache) county, and that the authorities reacted with "a resolute crackdown to eradicate terrorists."

However, Rebiya Kadeer, president of the exile World Uyghur Congress (WUC), accused authorities of a cover up of what she called a "massacre" of Uyghurs in Yarkand and claimed that at least 2,000 Uyghurs may have been killed by Chinese security forces following the riots.

Xinjiang-based rights activist Zhang Haitao said the detained man was a native of Yarkand.

"He cared about what happened in his hometown, and I'm guessing he probably had some sources of his own, so he probably knew some of what went on there," Zhang said.

"But the government hasn't responded to what he reported; they have just accused him of spreading rumors."

Chinese authorities have blamed "separatists" from Xinjiang for a series of attacks in which hundreds have died in the past year, but amid the tight security measures taken by Chinese authorities, foreign media groups say it's almost impossible for journalists to make independent assessments of such reports.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the Germany-based exile World Uyghur Congress, said Beijing's account of the violence was "a distortion of reality."

"In particular, the Chinese government has distorted the truth about the incident in Yarkand county, including the numbers of Uyghurs who died in clashes with the Chinese," Raxit said.

"They have covered it up all along."

He said the WUC has heard different reports "from a number of Uyghur sources" regarding the violence.

‘Mass killings’

Last week, the group condemned the violence, claiming of "mass killings of Uyghur civilians perpetrated by Chinese police and military forces” in Yarkand.

It said the number of extra-judicial killings amounted to a "massacre of civilians," which needs to be addressed internationally.

"An independent body needs to go there and investigate, to gather reliable and transparent evidence," Raxit said in an interview on Monday.

"China stepped up controls on the Internet, because they were afraid the truth about this incident would get out," he said. "Then they set about producing distorted news reports."

According to the WUC news release, sources in the region have documented a much more brutal incident in which the Chinese security forces applied indiscriminate use of force and extra-judicial killings in several townships especially in Nochi, and village No. 15, 16 and 17 of Elishku township.

The attacks started when they detected what they claimed to be "illegal community praying" by a group of women in these villages, the group said, citing letters from residents of the townships.

It said "many women and children" died in the attacks, but added that it has been unable to confirm the reports it received independently.

"Chinese military forces have been mobilized and dispatched to Kashgar, Hotan and Yeken and have been involved in the killing of civilians in and around their homes," the group said.

"The military have been responsible for violent crackdowns specifically in Elishku, Huandi, Nochi, Dongbagh and Gulbagh," it said.

‘Bombarded heavily’

According to a text message sent by the WUC to Agence France-Presse, one location "was bombarded heavily, after that armed forces went in and killed off those who were still alive, some wounded were strangled and their head were cut off."

"Among them there were newly born toddlers, old ladies and breast-feeding mothers," it added.

Most of these incidents have been reported by the official sources as "terrorist attacks" organized by Uyghur groups, but many were sparked by security forces "overreacting" to angry Uyghurs, the WUC said on its website.

"[The word] 'suspected terrorist' may...include those with no propensity towards violence, but those that simply wish to peacefully demonstrate and have their voices heard," the statement said.

It called on the international community to investigate the deaths in Yarkand further, for fear that such extrajudicial violence could escalate further.

"The recent track record of the Chinese authorities in the region indicates a possible escalation of similar [actions] by the security forces [with] impunity against Uyghur civilians," the Aug. 5 statement said.

"The lack of accountability on the part of local and central government and security forces are paving the way for more arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings of Uyghur civilians."

Residents told RFA at the time that the authorities had imposed a near-total information lockdown in the wake of the violence, cutting off Internet access in Yarkand and blocking the sending of text messages.

"Given that the government totally shut down any information, it's perfectly normal that rumors should start to spread," Zhang said.

"When there is no press freedom, they can't expect people just to parrot the official line, and then accuse this or that person of spreading rumors," he said.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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