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(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:

  • In violation of the right to choose one's own lawyer, judicial authorities in Urumqi and Beijing on July 11, 2009 effectively warned lawyers against accepting these cases by instructing them to exercise caution in dealing with cases related to the riots, and telling partners at law firms to report such cases immediately and "positively accept monitoring and guidance from legal authorities and lawyers' associations." The notice also banned lawyers from making comments to the media or on the internet, precluding public scrutiny of how the trials were conducted. On August 9, Ren Guoshen, the vice-head of the Urumqi legal aid services told Xinhua that the lawyers appointed to defend protesters had been chosen not only for their legal skills but also for "their good political qualities," raising questions about those lawyers' willingness to challenge the government while defending their clients.
  • Xinjiang judges and prosecutors were also specifically selected to hear these cases based on political criteria, and received direct instructions from Party authorities regarding the handling of the July 5 cases. The president of the Xinjiang High People's Court disclosed in a July 16 Ministry of Justice publication that the Xinjiang judicial authorities had "selected politically qualified personnel drawn from the entire region" to work on the July 5 cases. Other official reports state that the Party Committee of the Xinjiang High People's Court had organized training sessions for judicial personnel participating in these trials. During those sessions they received a "Propaganda Education Manual on the Truth about the July 5th Incident in Urumqi," prepared by the Party authorities so as to "unify the thinking with the central and regional party authorities," and "guide and educate cadres and policemen from all nationalities to increase their political keenness and discernment." The selection of judicial personnel on political criterions is a clear contravention of the right to be judged by an "independent and impartial tribunal" under international law.
  • In violation of China's own criminal procedure law, the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court failed to give public notification of the upcoming trials of the first July 5 cases and to hold open, public trials. It is unknown who was allowed to attend the court proceedings, but neither foreign journalists nor international observers were present. In past cases, the authorities have often arbitrarily restricted attendance to sensitive trials, selecting court personnel and civil servants to make up the audience.

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."

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