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(New York) - An independent and transparent investigation into the December 6 killing of protestors in Dongzhou village is urgently needed, Human Rights Watch said today. The incident in Guangdong province is the first known shooting of public protestors since the June 1989 massacre of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square.

Chinese authorities have admitted that three people were killed when security forces fired at villagers protesting inadequate compensation for land expropriated for a power plant. Villagers speaking over the phone with foreign journalists put the toll much higher, with some suggesting as many as 20 dead and some 40 missing. Dongzhou has reportedly been sealed off, with roadblocks set up to keep journalists out.

“Unfortunately, China has no record of conducting credible and transparent investigations into the actions of its security forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The legacy of Tiananmen makes it all the more important that the Chinese government take this opportunity to reach out and collaborate with independent experts.”

The Dongzhou killings took place after a large crowd gathered to protest the arrest of villagers involved in the power plant negotiations. With the village sealed off and an almost complete domestic news blackout in effect in China, it is difficult to determine the exact sequence of events.

In an open letter circulated Tuesday, more than 50 Chinese intellectuals demanded an independent investigation, stating, “We strongly protest at the Chinese government’s failure to publicly explain, clarify and investigate the killings. We protest against its gross action to forbid domestic media from reporting on the case.”

Human Rights Watch said it agreed with the authors of the letter and urged China to immediately invite the United Nations or another independent body to investigate the killings.

In Dongzhou, the first official response was to claim that the shootings occurred only after well-organized villagers initiated the violence. Chinese authorities called the incident “a serious violation of the law.” However, local residents told foreign journalists that many more people had been killed than officially reported, that security forces had opened fire without warning and that the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) was seen in the vicinity. Only then did the government begin to backpedal.

In a rare move, an unnamed officer who was identified by the Guangdong provincial government as the commanding officer at the scene has been arrested. The government said on Sunday that he was a police commander, detained for mishandling the incident that caused “mistaken deaths and accidental injuries,” and that his “wrong actions” were to blame for the killings.

“The government has admitted that an official had at least some responsibility for what happened in Dongzhou,” said Adams. “But we are all left to guess what exactly he or she did.”

Human Rights Watch called for the name of the arrested officer to be officially released, for his alleged role in the killings to be made public and for an explanation to be offered about who had the authority to give the order to open fire on the protestors. Questions also remain about whether and why the PAP was deployed, who ordered deployment, the standing rules for the PAP and other security forces in policing demonstrations and which officials were responsible for the apparent cover-up in the days after the killings.

“Because of the lack of transparency, we don’t know whether the commander is a scapegoat, or if he is only one of many who should be arrested,” said Adams. “The investigation must be conducted openly for people to have confidence that powerful figures will not be protected.”

International media interviews with local residents suggest that many villagers have been arrested, including the alleged “ringleaders” of the protests. Human Rights Watch called for any detainees to be identified, given access to counsel of their choice and quickly be charged or released. Given China’s long history of the use of torture in custody, Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the welfare of the detainees.

“Independent monitors should be given immediate access to any detainees to make sure they are not being mistreated,” said Adams.

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