(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately account for all detainees in its custody and allow independent investigations into the July 2009 protests in Urumqi and their aftermath, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on enforced "disappearances" released today.
The 44-page report, "‘We Are Afraid to Even Look for Them': Enforced Disappearances in the Wake of Xinjiang's Protests," documents the enforced disappearances of 43 Uighur men and teenage boys who were detained by Chinese security forces in the wake of the protests.
"The cases we documented are likely just the tip of the iceberg," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Chinese government says it respects the rule of law, but nothing could undermine this claim more than taking people from their homes or off the street and ‘disappearing' them - leaving their families unsure whether they are dead or alive."
Last week, Xinjiang judicial authorities started trials of people accused of involvement in the protests. Nine men have already been sentenced to death, three others to death with a two-year reprieve, and one to life imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch research has established that on July 6-7, 2009, Chinese police, the People's Armed Police, and the military conducted numerous large-scale sweep operations in two predominantly Uighur areas of Urumqi, Erdaoqiao, and Saimachang. On a smaller scale, these operations and targeted raids continued at least through mid-August.
The victims of "disappearances" documented by Human Rights Watch were young Uighur men. Most were in their 20s, although the youngest reported victims were 12 and 14 years old. It is possible that some Han Chinese also became victims of "disappearances" and unlawful arrests. However, none of the more than two dozen Han Chinese residents of Urumqi interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided any information about such cases.
According to witnesses, the security forces sealed off entire neighborhoods, searching for young Uighur men. In some cases, they first separated the men from other residents, pushed them to their knees or flat on the ground, and, at least in some cases, beat the men while questioning them about their participation in the protests. Those who had wounds or bruises on their bodies, or had not been at their homes during the protests, were then taken away. In other cases, the security forces simply went after every young man they could catch and packed them into their trucks by the dozens.
Twenty-five-year-old Makhmud M. [name changed] and another 16 men "disappeared" as a result of one of these raids in the Saimachang area of Urumqi. His wife and another witness told Human Rights Watch that at around 7 p.m. on July 6 a group of some 150 uniformed police and military sealed off the main street in their neighborhood:
They told everybody to get out of the houses. Women and elderly were told to stand aside, and all men, 12 to 45 years old, were all lined up against the wall. Some men were pushed on their knees, with hands tied around wooden sticks behind their backs; others were forced on the ground with hands on their heads. The soldiers pulled the men's T-shirts or shirts over their heads so that they couldn't see.
Police and the military were examining the men to see if they had any bruises or wounds. They also asked where they had been on July 5 and 6. They beat the men randomly, even the older ones - our 70-year-old neighbor was punched and kicked several times. We couldn't do anything to stop it - they weren't listening to us."
In this and other cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the families' attempts to inquire about their relatives proved futile. Police and other law enforcement agencies denied having knowledge of the arrests, or simply chased the families away.
Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to immediately stop the practice of enforced disappearances, release those against whom no charges have been brought, and account for every person held in detention. Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to allow for an independent, international investigation into the Urumqi unrest and its aftermath and called on the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to take the lead in such an investigation.
"China should only use official places of detention, so that everyone being held can contact family members and legal counsel," said Adams. "‘Disappearing' people is not the behavior of countries aspiring to global leadership."
The protests of July 5-7, 2009, in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi were one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades. The protests appear to have been sparked by an attack on Uighurs in the southeast part of the country, which became a rallying cry for Uighurs angry over longstanding discriminatory policies toward the Uighur minority. The initially peaceful Uighur demonstration quickly turned into a violent attack against Han Chinese, leaving scores dead or injured.
Instead of launching an impartial investigation into the incidents in accordance with international and domestic standards, Chinese law enforcement agencies carried out a massive campaign of unlawful arrests in the Uighur areas of Urumqi. Official figures suggest that the number of people detained by the security forces in connection with the protests has reached well over a thousand people.
Under international law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when its agents take a person into custody and it denies holding the person or fails to disclose the person's whereabouts. "Disappeared" persons are often at high risk of torture or extrajudicial execution. Family members and friends experience ongoing anxiety and suffering, as they do not know what has happened to the person.
"The United States, the European Union, and China's other international partners should demand clear answers about what happened to those who have disappeared in Xinjiang," said Adams. "They should not let trade relations or other political considerations lead them to treat China differently than other countries which carry out this horrific practice."