BEIJING – Chinese police have formally arrested 83 people on charges including murder and arson in connection with last month’s deadly rioting in the western region of Xinjiang, state media reported Tuesday.
The arrests mark the first step in prosecuting those implicated in the violence that saw Muslim Uighurs attack members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group.
Police have said hundreds were detained following the rioting in Xinjiang’s capital of Urumqi, which the government says killed 197 people and injured more than 1,700 – the worst ethnic violence in China in decades.
Quoting Urumqi’s chief prosecutor Utiku’er Abudrehman, Xinhua said the 83 were the first to undergo the process of being formally arrested.
“Those arrested will face charges of murder, intentional injury, arson and robbery,” Abudrehman said. The report said no trial dates have yet been set.
Xinhua also cited Urumqi police chief Chen Zhuangwei as saying that a total of 718 people had been detained on suspicion of taking part in rioting. Earlier reports had said at least 1,600 had been detained and it wasn’t clear whether any had been released.
Chen said investigators had obtained 2,169 photographs and 91 video clips with which to identify rioters.
The riots broke out July 5 after police stopped an initially peaceful protest by Uighur youths. Uighurs then smashed windows, burned cars and attacked Han. Two days later, the Han took to the streets and staged retaliatory attacks.
The violence underscored simmering resentment among many Uighurs over what they consider Chinese occupation of their land and heavy-handed communist controls over religion and cultural activities. Uighur extremists have long waged a low-intensity insurgency against Chinese rule, although they are believed to be few in number and poorly organized.
China has accused exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer of fomenting the July violence, although it has provided no direct evidence. Kadeer and other overseas Uighur activists have denied the claims and accused police of carrying out mass detentions.
“The authorities are hiding the true number that they have detained,” said Dilxat Raxit, a Germany-based spokesman for the pro-independence World Uyghur Congress of which Kadeer is president. “The numbers they give are simply not credible.”
Also Tuesday, Kadeer accused China of forcing her imprisoned children to say she was responsible for last month’s unrest. China released a letter Monday that it says was penned by Kadeer’s close relatives – including two of her children – blaming her.
But the 62-year-old U.S.-based activist, who arrived in Australia on Tuesday, told reporters in Sydney that the Chinese government forced two of her children to speak against her. They are both in prison in China, where one was convicted of tax evasion and the other of subversion – charges believed by many to be retaliation for their mother’s activism.
“If they … refused to co-operate with the Chinese government, then their lives would be jeopardized,” Kadeer said through an interpreter. “In order to live in China, you have to lie.”
Kadeer served six years in a Chinese prison on charges of endangering state security before going into exile in the U.S. in 2005.
Last week, she demanded that Beijing allow an international investigation into the disappearances of about 10,000 Uighur protesters she said were still missing after the Xinjiang unrest.