The Chinese authorities must reveal the whereabouts of up to five Uighur children reportedly detained after a deadly clash with police on 28 December in Hotan, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China.
According to Chinese government sources, seven members of the Uighur ethnic minority group were killed while illegally trying to cross China’s western border, another four were injured and a further four detained. A local deputy police chief was also killed in the clash, reportedly stabbed to death.
According to local sources who spoke to Radio Free Asia (RFA), the whereabouts of at least five children who were part of the group, aged between seven and 17, are still unknown. They are believed to be in official custody, and some may have serious injuries.
Chinese news agency Xinhua stated that “[a] group of "violent terrorists" kidnapped two people in the remote mountainous areas of Pishan county, Hotan prefecture... Police opened fire as the kidnappers "resisted arrest"", quoting an official from the Xinjiang regional government.
The authorities are reported to have responded to the incident by clamping down on local Uighur communities. More than 30 Uighur villagers have reportedly been detained, including many members of the extended families of those involved.
“The official explanation that people were killed because they ‘resisted arrest’ doesn’t answer how seven people ended up being shot dead, and a number of others injured,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Director for the Asia-Pacific.
“Even where suspects have used force against the police, the number of people killed and injured in this incident raises serious questions about whether unnecessary use of lethal force - in violation of UN guidelines - was used. This needs to be explained by the government.”
RFA, which has spoken to several sources familiar with the Uighurs involved in this incident, has reported that the group was fleeing China due to religious repression. One of those who died was said to have been previously detained for three months for attending banned religious education classes.
Two of the seven killed are reported to be women, and up to five children under the age of 17 were travelling with the group.
One of those in detention may be a seven-year-old who was wounded in the skirmish.
A nine-year-old boy is also believed by locals to be among those detained, while a police officer has reportedly confirmed that one of those detained with injuries is 17 years old.
“The Chinese authorities need to shed light on the whereabouts and health of these missing children and immediately provide medical care to those who need it,” said Sam Zarifi.
"China, as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is bound by standards regarding the detention of children to ensure that they are only held in detention as a last resort and for the shortest possible length of time.”
According to RFA, several local sources, including a police officer, described the confrontation as being sparked when the deputy chief of police physically caught hold of one of the women after the group had been stopped in the mountains trying to leave the country illegally.
The authorities have used tightened controls and repression to respond to what they perceive as a threat to their authority from Uighur ethnic minorities unhappy with Chinese rule.
According to local government officials, this has included a “crackdown on religious extremism”.
The government routinely conflates Uighur cultural and religious practice with “terrorism” through the concept of the “three forces”, i.e. “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism”.
Repression intensified since the outbreak of violence following initially peaceful protests in Urumqi in July, 2009 during which 197 people died and more than 1,400 were detained, according to official figures.
Uighurs of all backgrounds report severe employment discrimination, including those who speak Mandarin Chinese fluently and were educated in Chinese universities.
Uighur website editors have been punished with long prison terms for allowing postings on protests on their websites.
Many Uighurs have been arbitrarily detained and imprisoned on charges of “splittism” or “inciting separatism” for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and religion.