(New York) - China is attempting to lay to rest without investigation the most serious governmental assault on public protesters since the Tiananmen massacre, Human Rights Watch said today. In the absence of public disclosure about the role of officials in the deaths of at least three protestors in Dongzhou in December 2005, the sentencing of villagers involved in the protests undermines confidence in the impartiality of the Chinese legal system.
Thirteen Chinese villagers were sentenced on May 24 to prison for up to seven years for illegal assembly, disturbing social order, and illegal possession of explosives after taking part in protests in December 2005. At that time, the Chinese government acknowledged that, “policemen … accidentally killed and injured protestors,” and in May it issued “serious warnings” to some officials. But there have been no public reports of a transparent investigation into the incident itself, the role of officials, or the actual death toll, or whether steps are being taken to prevent a similar use of deadly force in the future. The government simply claims that “the relevant people … have already been gravely disciplined.”
“China’s leaders continue to trumpet their commitment to the ‘rule of law,’ but it’s hard to see this as anything but a political decision,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “When protestors are held incommunicado and convicted in a closed trial but officials get a slap on the wrist, there is hardly a pretense of legality.”
On December 6, 2005, Chinese security forces fired at villagers who were protesting insufficient compensation for land taken for power plant construction in Dongzhou, Guangdong province. It was the most serious shooting of public protestors since the June 1989 massacre of democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square.
Human Rights Watch said the Chinese government should publicly identify the officials reprimanded so far and explain their actions. It should also allow for an independent investigation into the incidents.
“The events in Dongzhou merit serious public scrutiny,” said Adams. “Anything less than that looks more like a cover-up than a search for truth and justice.”
The Chinese authorities admitted in December that three people were killed when security forces fired at the villagers. At the time of the protests, villagers speaking by telephone with foreign journalists put the toll much higher. The killings took place after a large crowd gathered to protest the arrest of villagers involved in negotiations about adequate compensation for the land taken. Dongzhou was sealed off, with roadblocks set up to keep journalists out.
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 also told foreign journalists 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 was arrested, according to official news accounts. The government said at the time 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.
On December 15, 2005, Human Rights Watch called for Chinese authorities to “reach out and collaborate with independent experts” to ensure a “credible and transparent” investigation. More than 50 Chinese intellectuals made the same demand. Instead, the cases of 13 villagers who were sentenced were heard over a mere three days. It is unclear whether they were tried individually or collectively.
“If the government doesn’t act quickly, the United Nations should be invited in to conduct a fact-finding mission,” said Adams. “The people of Dongzhou, as well as other Chinese citizens, have the right to know what happened and who was responsible.”