(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately release seven Tibetan high school students detained on suspicion of writing pro-Tibetan independence slogans on buildings, Human Rights Watch said today. One of the detainees, aged 14, is reported to have been badly beaten during or after the arrest and was bleeding profusely when last seen by relatives.

The seven male students, all from nomad families, are studying at the Amchok Bora village secondary school, in Xiahe (Labrang) county, Gannan prefecture in Gansu province. Four of the boys are 15 years old and three are14. Gannan is designated as one of China’s official “Tibetan autonomous” areas.

Human Rights Watch said that police detained some 40 students on or around September 7. The students were alleged to have written slogans calling for the return of the Dalai Lama and a free Tibet the previous day on the walls of the village police station and on other walls in the village. Within 48 hours, all but seven of the students were released from police custody. Police reportedly also questioned school staff about the slogan-writing graffiti incident.

“Arresting teenagers for a political crime shows just how little has changed in Tibet,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Beating up a child for a political crime shows just how far China has to go before it creates the ‘harmonious society’ China’s leaders talk so much about.”

The students were initially held in a police station in Amchok Bora, and allowed to see their families. However, on September 10, plainclothes officials believed to be state security moved them to the nearby county town of Xiahe (Labrang), east of the village. Shortly before the children were moved from the village, police had reportedly refused permission for the relatives to take the injured boy for medical treatment. Officials in Xiahe have since refused to reveal the students’ location or even to confirm that they are in custody.

The given names of five of the missing boys are Lhamo Tseten, age 15; Chopa Kyab, age 15; Drolma Kyab, age 14; Tsekhu, age 14; and a second Lhamo Tseten, age 15. The names of two others are unknown, and the identity of the wounded detainee is not known. Tibetans rarely use family names.

The students’ arrests are the latest example of an increasingly harsh response from Chinese authorities to the slightest hints of dissent over issues as diverse as cultural and religious policies, forced resettlement of Tibetan herders, environmental degradation, replacement of Tibetan cadres with ethnic Chinese ones, and increased migration of ethnic Chinese settlers to traditionally Tibetan regions. Several incidents in recent months have involved clashes between Tibetan residents and police forces.

In late September 2006, Chinese border police opened fire on a group of 73 Tibetans as they walked toward the border with Nepal. Two people, including a teenage nun, were shot and killed, and police subsequently detained about a dozen children. Their whereabouts were not known for four months, and no public investigation has been undertaken into that event.

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which China is a State Party, children have the right to freedom of expression. No child should be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or detained unlawfully or arbitrarily. Children who are legally detained should be held only as a matter of last resort and for the shortest possible period of time. Children in detention have the right to contact with their families and to prompt access to legal assistance.

Human Rights Watch urged UNICEF to urgently raise these cases with the government and seek guarantees of protection for these vulnerable children.

“To end this embarrassing and abhorrent episode, the Chinese government should immediately release the boys, protect them and their parents from further abuse, and explain why they were treated so harshly,” said Adams.