Television footage shows an arrested protester signing a confession at an unknown location on March 20, 2008.

© 2008 Reuters

(New York) - On the second anniversary of the March 2008 protests in Tibetan areas, the Chinese government should release those detained without charge, Human Rights Watch said today. The Chinese government should also respect rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in responding to protests in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas during the anniversary. Scores of people in Lhasa have reportedly already been arbitrarily arrested and detained.

"Further repression will breed precisely the kind of instability the Chinese government fears," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Addressing underlying grievances and allowing Tibetans to enjoy basic rights of expression, assembly, and due process is the only way to ensure the ‘harmony' Beijing so craves."

Against a backdrop of ever-more intrusive controls over religious and cultural activities, accelerated state-led economic development, and large scale compulsory resettlement of farmers and nomads, major protests against Chinese rule erupted in Lhasa on March 10, 2008, and spread across the Tibetan plateau. That date marked the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. Over the next four days, hundreds of monks from monasteries in and around Lhasa peacefully protested.

On March 14, 2008, near Ramoche temple in Lhasa, members of the public started protesting against police who were preventing monks from leaving the compound; some protesters turned violent and burned several police cars. The police retreated and then inexplicably disappeared from Lhasa for much of the rest of the day. Rioters burned Chinese shops and government buildings and attacked Chinese-looking passersby. Dozens of protests were held in Tibetan communities across the plateau over the course of that week.

Since that time, Tibetan areas remain tense, closely monitored, and saturated with troops. In 2009, two Tibetans were executed for their involvement in the 2008 protests.

In March 2009, Human Rights Watch released an extensive analysis of official Chinese accounts regarding the arrests and trials of Tibetan protesters from March 2008. That assessment showed that by the Chinese government's own count, thousands of Tibetans had been subject to arbitrary arrest and more than 100 trials were pushed through the judicial system. Little reliable information has emerged since that time to indicate releases, acquittals, or even the whereabouts of those detained. While several trials have been held, they have been highly politicized proceedings.

In September 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, identified "discrimination and the failure to protect minority rights" as "underlying causes" behind the protests in Tibet and Xinjiang - the Uighur Autonomous Region that was rocked by the worst episode of ethnic violence in July 2009. The Chinese government response to both uprisings has continued to rely on broad and indiscriminate coercion and intimidation, and preventing any expression of discontent.

"National security concerns do not exempt the Chinese government from it from its obligation to respect fundamental rights and freedoms," said Richardson. "If Tibetans in China are equal before the law then the government must account for every detention."