BEIJING Police in China's Inner Mongolia beat back supporters at the start of a sensitive land grab case, a family member said, where six nomadic herders are on trial for refusing to give up grazing land to a state-run forestry firm.
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 houses.
For centuries, nomadic herders have grazed sheep, yak and horses on Inner Mongolia's grasslands.
Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region which covers more than a 10th of China's land mass and has the country's 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, Mongolians far outnumbered Han Chinese.
The six Mongol herders were charged with sabotaging production and intentionally destroying property, and faced a trial which lasted 11 hours on Wednesday, said their lawyer, Huhbulag, who like many ethnic Mongols uses only one name.
Huhbulag has been barred by authorities from representing the herders.
A court official told Reuters by telephone she had no information about the case.
A sibling of one of the accused said guards initially prevented about 100 supporters from entering the courtroom and used electroshock weapons to beat some of them.
"They took their electric batons to strike the ordinary people, causing them to fall on the ground," said Long Mei, the sister one of the herders named Tulguur. "I shouted at them, saying: 'Since this is an open trial, on what grounds are you preventing the people to go in?'"
Later, a judge intervened and allowed about 30 of them in.
RIGHTS IN FOCUS
Five of the herders pleaded not guilty, while one pleaded guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, Huhbulag said.
He said the charges against the herders were unfounded and smacked of retribution for their petitioning efforts in trying to complain that their land was being illegally seized by a state-run forestry firm.
"The local government has detained these people for about half a year," he said. "They'll have no way to explain that they wrongly handled a false case, a miscarriage of justice."
He said the herders would almost certainly be found guilty in the next 10 days or so. They face up to seven years in jail.
The herders were arrested in June after a clash with Chinese workers from the state-owned Wengniuteqi Shuanghe Forestry, two of the herders' family members told Reuters. The herders accused the workers of illegally occupying their grazing land.
The trial comes three weeks ahead of a visit to China by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, during which human rights will likely be raised amid a broader crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech and assembly.
The 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.
Hada's wife Xinna told Reuters, in a rare telephone call this week, that Hada remained in a "black jail" on the outskirts of Inner Mongolian capital Hohhot and was unlikely to be released as she had been told the order to keep him there came from the highest levels in Beijing.
"It's ridiculous. We're intellectuals, just trying to protect and pass on our culture. How can this threaten China's security?" she said. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)