The trial of six herders in Inner Mongolia on charges of sabotaging production and intentionally destroying property owned by a Chinese state-owned firm has turned international focus on Beijing's land grab in a region where ethnic Mongols have already been far outnumbered by the Han Chinese.
The six herders were arrested in June following confrontation with workers from the state-owned Wengniuteqi Shuanghe forestry firm. The firm later accused the herders of illegally occupying the grazing land, while the herders claimed traditional rights to the land where they have been raising sheep, yak and horses for generations.
Even as heated trial proceedings took place, about 100 ethnic Mongols tried to barge into the court room, but were beaten by the guards with electric batons.
"They took their electric batons to strike the ordinary people, causing them to fall on the ground," said Long Mei, sister of one of the herders, according to Reuters. "I shouted at them, saying: 'Since this is an open trial, on what grounds are you preventing the people to go in?"
Later, about 30 of the supporters were allowed in.
The lawyer appointed to take up the case for the herders, Huhbulag -- who like most ethnic Mongolians uses only one name -- was later barred from representing them.
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 baseless and meant to suppress any future petitioning efforts by local people.
Ethnic Mongols have long protested that their traditional grazing lands are being ruined by mining and desertification. They do not support government's efforts to settle them in permanent houses.
"The ordinary people survive on their land, now that it's been sold to other people, can the people be satisfied?" said Long Mei, the sister of Tulguur, one of the accused.
In April, some agitated herders had dismantled a tent set up by the forestry officials and appealed for an immediate return of their grazing land, according to the New York-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre. The clash that followed led to 12 herders being admitted to hospital, the group said.
Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region in China which constitutes about a tenth of China's land mass and has the country's largest coal reserve. The region was rocked by protests in 2011 when an ethnic Mongol herder was killed by a truck after taking part in demonstrations against pollution caused by a coal mine.
"The authorities are determined to hand down long-term jail sentences," Enghebatu Togochog, a member of the Mongolian human rights group, said.
Huhbulag hinted that the six accused herders are being used to dissuade other people from trying to engage in community-wide protests.
"The case of these six herders is 'killing a chicken to scare a monkey', that is, if the people petition, they have the power to arrest you and put you on trial," he said.