(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately permit an independent inquiry into an attack by a police unit on a string of Tibetan refugees that resulted in the killing of at least one girl near the Nepali border, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also rescind any orders that allow border troops to open fire on unarmed civilians.
Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) shot dead a 17-year-old girl named Kelsang Namtso from Nagchu on September 30. At least one other Tibetan, 23-year-old Kunsang Namgyal from Kardze, was shot twice and arrested, and is feared dead. The two were part of a group of 73 Tibetans who were attempting to cross the border into Nepal through the 6,000-meter-high Nangpa Pass.
“Despite its pledges to the rule of law, China has never mounted a credible and transparent investigation into questionable actions by its security forces,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “An inquiry undertaken by officials – who either implicitly or explicitly permitted this shooting – is likely to lack integrity, so the government must permit an independent body to determine what happened at Nangpa Pass.”
According to witnesses, multiple shots were fired at the group, which was walking in a column over a snow-covered glacier along the China-Nepal border. All members of the group were several hundred yards from the People’s Armed Police unit and had their backs to the unit. One shot hit the person at the head of the column, who fell down but later was able to get up again.
Kelsang Namtso, who was last in the column, was then shot. She tried to get up but was shot again and did not rise. The rest of the group fled. Kelsang Namtso’s body was left by the soldiers on the mountain for more than 24 hours, and photographs appear to show soldiers and others, possibly police, trying to bury it on the mountain the following day. Shooting unarmed civilians where there is clearly no threat to persons or property is an act of summary execution.
Witnesses reported seeing Chinese soldiers marching at least 10 children and up to 20 adults, at least one of whom appeared to be injured, down from Nangpa Pass later that day. Forty-three people are reported to have reached Kathmandu, Nepal, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sheltered them at the Tibetan Refugee Transit Centre (TRRC). The group departed for India on October 20. The whereabouts of 32 members of the party, including 14 children, who did not reach Nepal is still unclear, according to refugee organizations in Nepal, who have published names of all those missing.
In a statement issued through the official Chinese press agency, Xinhua, on October 12, government officials said that the Tibetans had refused orders to turn back, and that they had then attacked the People’s Armed Police. According to Xinhua, the soldiers were “forced to defend themselves.” The agency said that one person had been killed, but stated that this was due to “lack of oxygen” after being taken to the hospital.
Each year approximately 3,000 Tibetans flee China for Nepal. Those who safely reach Kathmandu are housed at the UNHCR-run Transit Centre prior to resettlement in India, which also allows temporary visits for pilgrimage or education. Many are escaping the ongoing political, religious, and socioeconomic repression Tibetans have suffered since China’s annexation of the territory in 1951. The right to leave any country and the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries are fundamental human rights, yet China considers crossing a border without a permit a criminal act, punishable by a sentence of up to one year.
The Nangpa Pass is a common escape route, though Chinese border police have previously fired on Tibetans in this area, according to eyewitness reports in 2003. The pass is also located near Mount Cho Oyu’s advanced base camp for mountaineers. Because early autumn is peak climbing season, many foreign mountaineers happened to be in the camp, and some videotaped the shooting and several provided testimony to media outlets. Sergiu Matei, a cameraman for Romanian ProTV, captured the shooting on tape (please see: http://www.protv.ro/filme/exclusive-interview-with-the-man-who-captured-...).
Human Rights Watch calls upon the Chinese government to allow an international agency with expertise in the rights and well-being of children to determine whether any of the 10 children reportedly apprehended by the border guards were separated from their parents against their will and, in accordance with the principle of the best interests of the child, to reunite them with their families. In the interim, UNICEF should seek to ensure that the children have access to legal counsel and that the conditions of detention are of an appropriate standard.
In addition, Human Rights Watch urges the Chinese government to allow the United Nations special rapporteurs on the human rights of migrants and on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to investigate the shooting. All those who have been detained simply because they attempted to cross an international border should be released. The Chinese government should also publicly clarify the standing rules of engagement for soldiers on the border, and whether those who fired on these unarmed civilians and the officers who ordered them to do so will be prosecuted.
“China must give assurances and allow an independent inquiry to confirm that those who remain in detention – especially the children – and others have been treated according to international legal standards and allowed to return to their homes without punishment if they so choose,” said Richardson.