A detailed report by Human Rights Watch says Chinese security forces violated international law in suppressing the Tibetan protests and riots of 2008 by indiscriminately beating, detaining and fatally shooting civilians in towns across the vast Tibetan plateau in western China.
The report, released on Wednesday night, said security officers, mostly ethnic Han members of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary branch charged with domestic security, used disproportionate force in trying to control Tibetans, including against women, teenagers, monks and nuns. In at least three cases, security officers fired live ammunition into crowds and killed people, the report said, citing eyewitness accounts. In several protests, security forces used batons or other weapons to beat unarmed protestors until they were bloody and motionless, the report said. Hundreds of detainees remain missing.
The report also traced the origins of the deadly ethnic rioting in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, to brutal attempts by security forces to suppress a peaceful protest by monks on March 10, four days before the riots broke out.
As Lhasa descended into chaos, protests quickly flared up in other Tibetan areas, which make up one-quarter of China’s landmass, and security forces locked down the entire region, keeping out foreigners, even as they tried to tamp down the uprising, the largest among Tibetans in five decades.
The authors said the report “finds that the scale of human rights violations related to suppressing the protests was far greater than previously believed, and that Chinese forces broke international law — including prohibitions against disproportionate use of force, torture and arbitrary detention, as well as the right to peaceful assembly — despite government claims to the contrary.
“It also reveals that violations continue, including disappearances, wrongful convictions and imprisonment, persecution of families, and the targeting people suspected of sympathizing with the protest movement.”
The 73-page report is based on interviews with 203 Tibetan witnesses who had fled China and with visitors who were in the Tibetan areas at the time.
It is the most comprehensive account of the violence of spring 2008. Human Rights Watch acknowledged that Tibetans brutally attacked Han civilians in Lhasa in March 2008 and said in a statement released with the report that it “has condemned violence committed by Tibetans as well as by security forces.”
Chinese officials have said the security forces exercised sufficient restraint and that Tibetans perpetrated the most heinous acts of violence.
At least 19 people were killed in the rioting that unfolded in and around Lhasa on March 14, when Tibetans burned and looted hundreds of stores run by Han and ethnic Hui businesspeople, the Chinese government said. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported in spring 2008 that more than 150 episodes of unrest took place from March 10 to March 28 in Tibetan areas. The government has blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, for catalyzing the protests, although the Dalai Lama has denied any such role.
“In dealing with the incident, all related departments abided by the law and enforced it in a civil manner,” Qin Gang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Thursday in a written statement responding to faxed questions about the report. “The accused are fully guaranteed the rights of litigation, and their ethnic customs as well as their dignity are respected.”
The report said the three documented cases in which security forces fired live ammunition at protesters were in Lhasa and the prefectures of Aba and Ganzi, both in Sichuan Province. The authors said the Chinese government had so far acknowledged only one episode in which any protesters were killed.
Photographs have circulated on the Internet of bodies with bullet wounds that were supposedly the result of the shootings in Aba. The violence took place on March 16, when thousands of Tibetans protested near Kirti Monastery and were confronted by security forces. The bodies of the civilians were taken into Kirti. An initial report by Xinhua said security forces killed four protesters in self-defense, but that report was later changed to say protesters were wounded.
The Human Rights Watch report gives a detailed timeline of how the rioting in Lhasa broke out March 14. The first violence took place on March 10, when the police beat and arrested monks from Sera Monastery who were holding a peaceful protest in front of the Jokhang Temple, the report said, citing eyewitness accounts. Later that day, 300 to 400 monks from Drepung Monastery marched to demand greater religious freedom, and the police arrested up to 60 of them. Other protests took place the next two days involving monks and nuns, and the police forced them back to their monasteries.
On March 14, civilians threw rocks at police officers at 11 a.m. when the police tried to confront protesting monks at Ramoche, a small temple in central Lhasa. The police retreated, and no security forces showed up in central Lhasa for the next 24 hours. Under those conditions, the rioting and killing began.
By EDWARD WONG, New York Times
Published: July 22, 2010
Helen Gao contributed research