Central Asia Theater
International rights groups welcomed the release June 5 of Tibetan film-maker Dhondup Wangchen, who was imprisoned in China in 2008 for producing the documentary Leaving Fear Behind, which depicted conditions faced by Tibetans under Chinese rule. Wangchen was released from prison in Qinghai's provincial capital, Xining, but faces an unspecified term of deprivation of political rights, according to Wangpo Tethong, a member of the Switzerland-based Tibetan film company Filming for Tibet who spoke to the New York-based Committee to Protect Jouranlists, which has rigorously campaigned for his release. "We are relieved that Dhondup Wangchen has been released, but Chinese authorities will never be able to return the six years they've already taken from him," said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. "China should seek to end its stigma as one of the world's leading jailers of the press by releasing the many journalists unjustly imprisoned for their work."
Chinese officials in the western region of Xinjiang on May 27 held a public rally at a sports stadium for the mass sentencing of criminals, in which 55 individuals were sentenced before a crowd of 7,000 people. While three received death sentences for crimes including "violent terrorism," other prisoners' crimes ranged from "separatism" to "membership in terror groups." Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have accused China's policies of being discriminatory against Uighurs, Muslims who speak a Turkic language. All individuals named at the sentencing rally [in the city of Yining, Yili prefecture] have Uighur names. This public stand against terrorism and extremism appears to be a response to the recent attacks in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi.
At least 30 are dead and over 90 injured after attackers in Urumqi, capital of China's restive Xinjiang region, ploughed two SUVs into shoppers at a vegetable market, while hurling explosives from the windows. The vehicles then crashed head-on and one exploded. China's Ministry of Public Security, with typical redundancy, called it a "violent terrorist incident." (BBC News, AP) While this was the worst so far, such attacks are becoming alarmingly frequent in China. A militant group called the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) apparently took responsibility for the April 30 suicide bombing at Urumqui's rail station. (The Guardian, May 14) Radio Free Asia reported on May 9 that more than 100 relatives of one of the men identified as the bombers in the attack have been detained. The police chief in Gulbagh, the village where the attacker hailed from, actually admitted to RFA's Uighur service that most of the detained were women and children. As recently as May 20, RFA reported that police opened fire at a protest by hundreds of Uighurs angry over the detention of several women and middle-school girls for wearing headscarves in Alaqagha township, Kucha county, Aksu prefecture. Although the account could not be confirmed, residents said they feared several were shot dead. On May 21, Reuters reported that 39, all with Uighur names, were sentenced in a rare mass public event to terms of up to 15 years for such crimes as "distributing recordings with extremist content" and "promoting ethnic hatred."
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel toured Asia earlier this month ahead of Obama's coming visit, and at an April 10 stop in Ulan Bator signed a "joint vision" statement with his Mongolian counterpart Dashdemberel Bat-Erdene, calling for expanding military cooperation through joint training and assistance. "A strong US-Mongolia defense relationship is important as part of the American rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region," Hagel told a joint press conference. Bat-Erdene ruled out the possibility of hosting US forces, citing a Mongolian law that bars foreign military bases from the country. But the agreement is clearly aimed at extending US military encirclement of China. Days earlier, Hagel had lectured his hosts in Beijing over China's establishment of an air defense zone in the East China Sea. He also made a flat warning about the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, telling reporters: "We affirmed that since [the Senkaku Islands] are under Japan's administrative control, they fall under Article 5 of our Mutual Security Treaty." (AFP, April 10; Time, April 8)
Chinese authorities shot dead eight ethnic Uighurs who attempted to attack a police patrol Feb. 14 in Uchturpan (Chinese: Wushi) county, Aksu prefecture, Xinjiang. Three more were were reportedly killed by their own improvised explosive devices. China's state news agency Xinhua called the attack an "organized, premeditated terrorist assault targeting the police." But Dilxat Raxit of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress said: "Chinese armed officers' violent rooting out and provocation are the reason for Uighur resistance. The so-called terrorism is China's political excuse of directly shooting dead those who take a stand." (Xinhua, Feb. 16; BBC News, RFA, Feb. 14)
Mongolian ecology activist Tsetsegee Munkhbayar, who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for his campaign to protect water sources from mining pollution, was sentenced on Jan. 21 together with four associates to 21 years in prison each for "acts of terrorism." Munkhbayar was arrested on Sept. 16 at a protest in front of the parliament building in Ulan Bator during which a firearm was discharged. Security officials also allegedly found an explosive device in a nearby building. While stating that it does not condone violence, the Goldman Prize asserts that "it is widely understood that the shot was not fired on purpose and nobody was injured." The protest was called by Munkhbayar's "Fire Nation" movement to oppose a new government contract with French company Areva to revive uranium exploration in the Gobi Desert, which traditional heders say has led to death and deformities among livestock. Mongolia's parliament is considering a bill to loosen restrictions on a hard-won environmental law that prohibit mining in the headwaters of rivers and other sensitive areas.
A court in China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region on Dec. 31 handed down prison terms to six herders who protested the seizure of local grazing land by a forestry company. Four received suspended sentences and were released, while two remain behind bars because they refused to plead guilty, rights groups and relatives said. The trial took place in Ongniud (Chinese: Wengniute) banner (county), which was the scene of protests last year when traditional lands of the local at Bayannuur gachaa (village) were turned over to the state-run Shuanghe Forestry Co. The six were arrested in June on charges of "sabotaging production management"—apparently a reference to blocking company equipment. The four who were released had to pay "compensation" to the company. The remaining two, named as Tulguur and Tugusbayar, each received terms of two years. The trial was closed to the public, and their relatives were only told of the sentence several days later. Nearly 200 herders staged protests in front of Ongniud city hall in late December as the case drew to a close. "The verdict is clearly unjust, this is a land dispute and not a criminal case," a lawyer for the defendants told Reuters by telephone, declining to be identified for fear of retribution.
Detained Uighur scholar and activist Ilham Tohti was accused by Chinese authorities of "separatism" in Jan. 25 statement, and formal charges against him are expected imminently. The Bureau of Public Security in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, said Tohti recruited followers through his website to incite ethnic hatred and spread separatist ideology. In an online statement, the bureau charged that Tohti told his students that Uigurs should use violence and oppose the government as China opposed Japanese invaders during World War II. It also claimed Tohti told his students that those who attacked Xinjiang police in previous incidents were heroes. "Ilham Tohti made use of his capacity as a teacher to recruit, lure and threaten some people to form a ring and join hands with key people from the East Turkestan Independence Movement to plan and organise people to go abroad to take part in separatist activities," according to the statement posted to the bureau's official Weibo feed.