BEIJING - Six herders in China who 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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 forestry company.