(New York) - Developments in Xinjiang over the past three days indicate that the Chinese authorities are poised to launch a widespread, politicized crackdown on Uighur communities across the region, rather than undertake an impartial and objective investigation into the violence, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the violence erupted in Urumqi, the regional capital, on July 5, 2009, following what appeared to be initially a peaceful protest organized by Uighur students, the government has proceeded to deploy at least 20,000 troops in and around the city. National and regional authorities have also announced that they will seek the death penalty for protest organizers and those who committed violence.
"The government has promised a thorough investigation into the violence but has so far presented a skewed and incomplete picture of the unrest," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "This raises serious doubts about its commitment to investigating all aspects of the violence rather than presenting a pre-determined version of the events."
Within 24 hours of the violence, Chinese government officials accused Rebiya Kadeer, a former political prisoner in Xinjiang and now a prominent Uighur rights activist in the United States, of planning and organizing the protests. No evidence has been provided to support those claims, which Kadeer denies. In addition, Chinese officials have leveled largely unsubstantiated charges blaming terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda, and the US Congress for the protests.
Human Rights Watch said that the government's and the state media's accounts of the violence seemed to focus on instances that reflected almost exclusively attacks on Han Chinese. Although the government has now stated that 35 of the 156 dead were Uighurs, the government has not discussed or broadcast information about acts of violence against Uighurs.
It is also unclear what role the security forces played during the protests on July 5. The government has not clarified the extent to which security forces tried or failed to prevent acts of violence on the part of various groups, nor has it discussed the role played by the security forces in breaking up the protests and riots or whether only force proportional to the situation was used.
On July 8, Chinese President Hu Jintao chaired a Politburo meeting, which concluded that: "It is necessary to isolate and strike at a tiny minority, while uniting with, educating, and winning over the majority. It is imperative to sternly crack down, according to the law." The next day, the head of China's police force, Meng Jianzhu, declared in Urumqi that, "All the thugs in the riot should be severely punished in accordance with law, otherwise we will let the victims and their relatives down."
"If Hu and Meng are serious about their stated commitment to justice, the coming days should see the first steps toward credible investigations," said Richardson. "But much of the rest of the rhetoric undermines that goal, and instead suggests a witch hunt."
Human Rights Watch also said that it had growing concerns about the fate and whereabouts of the detainees the government said it had taken into custody and the authorities' failure to notify their relatives. The government has announced that more than 1,400 people have been arrested since July 5. Although security officials have maintained that all the detainees had been arrested while protesting, there have been reports of police conducting sweeps in Uighur neighborhoods after the protests in which men were taken away. State media also reported arrests, accompanied by pictures of Uighur men who allegedly were seeking to cause "disturbances" near the railway station on July 7, two days after the last reported riots.
Human Rights Watch said that such massive security build-ups, arbitrary arrests, and lack of due process are consistent not only with the aftermath of the 1997 protests in Yining and the 2008 protest in Tibet, but also with the "anti-separatist" and "Strike Hard" campaigns to which the region has been periodically subject for decades.
"It's ironic that the government claims ‘hostile foreign forces' were behind the protest, but that an investigation into it must be a ‘purely domestic affair,'" said Richardson. "At this point, the only credible investigation is by definition an international one."