(Reuters) - Six herders in
tried to defend grazing land from expropriation by a
forestry firm have been sentenced in the resource-rich Inner
Mongolia region, a lawyer and family members said on Monday,
in a case that has sparked protests.
unrest in Inner Mongolia is the latest flare up of ethnic
tension in China after deadly protests by Muslim Uighur
people in the far western Xinjiang region and unrest among
Tibetans in the west.
Ethnic Mongols have long complained that their traditional
grazing lands have been ruined by mining and
desertification, and that the government has tried to force
them to settle in permanent dwellings.
six Mongol herders were sentenced to prison terms ranging
from one to two years on Dec. 31 on a charge of "sabotaging
production management" by a court in Ongniud Banner, the
area of Inner Mongolia where the incident occurred, a lawyer
representing one of the accused and family members of two of
them told Reuters by telephone.
"The verdict is clearly unjust, this is a land dispute and
not a criminal case," said the lawyer, who declined to be
identified for fear of government retribution.
"The fact that it's been turned into a criminal case is
because of the interference of the local government."
"The villagers have been going to the municipal government
and Beijing to petition, and the local government has been
criticised for it. They are under great pressure so they had
to resort to this approach."
Officials at the court could not be reached.
herders were arrested in June after a clash with workers
from the state-owned Wengniuteqi Shuanghe Forestry, the
herders' family members said previously. The herders had
accused the workers of illegally occupying grazing land.
Reuters was unable to find contact information for the
lawyer and family members said the herders had urged
officials to address their land problem for years.
"I'm dissatisfied with the verdict," said Sarangowaa, the
wife of one of the accused called Tulguur. "My feeling is
that they aren't guilty."
Sobdoo, the sister of one of the accused called Tugusbayar,
said the herders' plight sparked a protest on Dec. 30 by
more than 100 herders outside a government building.
Many Mongols in China go by only one name.
Nearly 200 herders staged protests in front of government
buildings of Ongniud Banner and Ulaanhad Municipality on
Dec. 30 and 31, said the New York-based Southern Mongolian
Human Rights Information Center.
Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region which covers more than
a 10th of China's land mass and has its largest coal
reserves, was rocked by protests in 2011 after an ethnic
Mongol herder was killed by a truck after taking part in
protests against pollution caused by a coal mine.
Ethnic Mongols now make up less than 20 percent of the
region's population of about 24 million. Before the
Communist revolution in 1949, Mongols far outnumbered
majority Han Chinese.
United States has expressed concern about the fate of
China's most famous Mongol dissident, Hada, who was sent
back to detention almost as soon as he completed a 15-year
sentence for separatism in 2010. (Additional reporting by
Huang Yan; Editing by Robert Birsel)