(New York) - The trials of 21 defendants accused of participating in the violent July 2009 protests in Urumqi did not meet minimum international standards of due process and fair trials, Human Rights Watch said today.
On October 12, the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court tried seven men and sentenced six to death and one to life imprisonment. On October 14, another 14 men were tried and sentenced. Six received the death penalty, three of them with a two-year reprieve, while others were sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. All the trials took place without prior public notification and were conducted in less than a day.
"There is no doubt that serious criminal acts were committed in July's unrest in Xinjiang, but it serves neither justice nor stability for the government to ignore minimum standards of due process," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The lack of transparency about how these trials were conducted undermines confidence in the verdicts."
The protests of July 5-7, 2009 in Urumqi were one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades. According to government figures, 197 people, 134 of them Han Chinese, died in the violence, and some 1,600 were injured. Security forces arrested hundreds of suspected protesters over the following days and weeks, and the government promised harsh punishment - including the death penalty for the worst offenders - as early as July 9.
In recent weeks, the Xinjiang judicial authorities announced that they would begin by trying 21 cases for which they had overwhelming evidence, including for some cases with supporting footage from security cameras. On October 9, the city's deputy chief procurator, Liu Bo, told Xinhua that law enforcement authorities had made "a lot of effort to collect solid and legitimate evidence against each suspect allegedly involved in criminal activities in the riot." Liu added that the state prosecution would "speed up the process of public prosecution for the rest of the suspects."
Human Rights Watch said that serious violations of due process that compromised the possibility of fair trials for the defendants, including restrictions on legal representation, overt politicization of the judiciary, failure to publish public notification of the trials, and failure to hold genuinely open trials as mandated by law - all chronic problems in China's judicial system. In this month's Xinjiang cases, Human Rights Watch identified three particular concerns:
Human Rights Watch, which opposes the death penalty in all cases, also expressed concern about the fate of hundreds more people officially arrested and detained since the riots. Information about their whereabouts remains unclear.
"Chinese authorities failed to keep repeated promises to the public and the international community to hold fair trials, consistent with the law," said Richardson. "No one should confuse these proceedings with justice."