Dharamsala: Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language rights advocate, pleaded not guilty on Thursday to the charges of “inciting separatism” during a four-hour trial that ended without a verdict. If convicted, Wangchuk could face up to 15 years in prison.
Tashi Wangchuk joins a long list of cases where the Chinese government has misused its vaguely written laws and absurd criminal charges to persecute Tibetan intellectuals and prominent figures—some who were once favorites of the Chinese government. The list also includes cases of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan religious figure, who was pronounced a death sentence on charges of “causing explosions” and “inciting separation of the state”; Karma Samdrup, an environmentalist and philanthropist, sentenced to 15 years on charges of trading in looted relics- charges which had been brought and dropped 12 years ago; and Dorjee Tashi, one of the “10 outstanding youth of Tibet” named by the Chinese government, was sentenced to life imprisonment under unclear charges in a secret trial.
The Chinese government is able to silence dissent with political accusations under the garb of criminal charges.
Although criminal trials are held, there are serious reasons to question the impartially of the courtroom. The trials cannot meet minimum standards of fairness where the rights of the accused to defence are blatantly denied and miscarriages of justice are overlooked by the court.
The 32-year-old’s trial has received adequate international attention and a number of foreign diplomats travelled to Yushu to attend the trial held at the Intermediate People’s Court in Yulshul County of eastern Tibet.
Wangchuk has been detained since January 2016 after appearing in a video documentary produced by the New York Times in 2015. The documentary, entitled “A Tibetan’s Journey for Justice”, He travels to Beijing in the hopes of filing a lawsuit against the local Yushu government officials for the lack of Tibetan language education in schools, and imposing Mandarin as the main medium of instructions when majority of the students are Tibetans. However, the video showed that no law firm was willing to take on the lawsuit.
According to Tashi Wangchuk’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun, the New York Times’s ‘A Tibetan’s Journey to Justice’ documentary was used as a key piece of evidence by the prosecution to prove that his client was deliberately engaged in acts to incite “separatism”. However, Tashi Wangchuk maintains that he only wants to ensure that Tibetan children have access to their mother tongue, and does not seek Tibetan independence.
The presiding judge had told that courtroom that a verdict would be delivered at a later date. China’s Communist party-controlled courts have a conviction rate of more than 99%, especially in politically controversial cases.
Dr Lobsang Sangay, President of the Central Tibetan Administration, has called on the Chinese government to adhere to its own Constitution, stating, “Tashi Wangchuk has on his own volition advocated for a constitutionally guaranteed right, that of bi-lingual education for Tibetans and ethnic minorities. His trial and sentencing will determine largely whether the Chinese Government is committed to upholding internationally recognised laws and domestically accepted rule of law in China.”
Amnesty International has called Tashi Wangchuk’ss trial “ludicrously unjust” and a “sham.” Roseann Rife, Amnesty’s East Asia Research Director said, “It is appalling that Tashi Wangchuk could face up to 15 years’ imprisonment simply for expressing his views in media interviews. These are blatantly trumped up charges and he should be immediately and unconditionally released.”
China Director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, stated, “All Tashi Wangchuk has done is peacefully advocate for constitutionally-guaranteed rights. If Chinese authorities consider that inciting separatism, it’s hard to tell what isn’t.”
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
In 2002, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a prominent Tibetan religious leader, was given a suspended death sentence in 2001, commuted to life imprisonment in 2005, on charges of “causing explosions” and “inciting separation of the state.” The charges were in relation to involvement in a bomb explosion in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan. Rinpoche’s alleged co-conspirator, LobsangDondrup, was also found guilty and executed on 26 January 2003.
The US, EU and international human rights organizations had criticized Rinpoche’s sentence and called for his immediate release.
Rinpoche, 65, died in custody in 2015 under mysterious circumstances, after serving 13 years of jail time. The Chinese government claimed that Rinpoche died of a heart attack. However, Rinpoche’s niece, NyimaLhamo, who later escaped to India, rejected this official explanation. She testified at the 9th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, stating that Rinpoche had been tortured and poisoned to death. Ms. Lhamo revealed that when the family was finally allowed to see Rinpoche’s body, they noticed that his lips were dark and nails were blue.
Neither Rinpoche’s body nor his ashes were returned to his family to perform Buddhist last rites, despite a significant outcry from locals and international supporters.
The case of Rinpoche was widely viewed as politically motivated and an attempt by the Chinese government to silence Rinpoche given his growing popularity among the public and his staunch loyalty to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The local Tibetans viewed Rinpoche as a champion in advocating for the economic, cultural, religious, and environmental rights of the Tibetan people.
Human Rights Watch provided a detailed account of the circumstances around Rinpoche’s arrest and conviction, and concluded that it was plagued with many irregularities and lacked any credible evidence against Rinpoche. The report concluded, “[M]any reasons remain for questioning [the Court’s] findings and those of the review court or courts that upheld the original sentences. The trial was procedurally flawed, the court was neither independent nor impartial, and the defendants were denied access to independent legal counsel. Lawyers chosen by members of Tenzin Delek’s family were not permitted to defend him at his appeal hearing. Claiming that state secrets were involved, Chinese authorities still refuse to release any of the evidence presented at trial.”
In 2010, Karma Samdrup, a leading Tibetan environmentalist and philanthropist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of trading in looted relics—charges which had been brought and dropped 12 years ago after Karma Samdrup showed a valid government license to trade in cultural relics.
The Chinese government had intensified security crackdown after the 2008 Beijing Olympics protests, which garnered massive media attention around the world.
Samdrup was once praised by the Chinese government as a model environmentalist and philanthropist.
Rights groups believed that the charges had resurfaced after so long in order to punish Samdrup for lobbying authorities for the release of his two brothers. Both of Samdrup’s brothers had been arrested after they publicly campaigned against local officials who hunted endangered species in their home area of Gonjo, Chamdo Prefecture.
Human Rights Watch noted serious and numerous procedural violations and restrictions to Samdrup’s right to defence. He was denied the right to meet anyone, including his lawyers, for more than six months after his arrest. Human Rights Watch also questioned the credibility of the prosecution’s case after Samdrup’sdefence lawyers accused the prosecution of altering evidence. In addition, the trial judge refused to delve into Samdrup’s claims of ill-treatment during his six-month detention.
The court released a 10-page verdict just several hours after the trial had ended, which strongly suggested that the decision was predetermined.
In another high-profile case, DorjeTashi, 37, one of Tibet’s richest businessmen was sentenced to life imprisonment after he was found guilty of unspecified charges at a secret trial held in Lhasa, 2010.
Tashi’s conviction is surprising since he was a member of the Chinese Communist party and had met the former Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and the former premier, Wen Jiabao, in 2005. The Chinese government also named him as one of “10 outstanding youth of Tibet.”
While the exact charges against Tashi was not known, sources reported that he was charged for providing funding to the Tibetan exile community. If true, such a donation would be considered a ‘splittist’ act by the Chinese government.
The Chinese media never reported on Tashi’s case but the general manager of Tashi’s famous Yak Hotel in Lhasa and other sources have confirmed that he has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
These cases demonstrate that the Chinese government has deployed a systematic crackdown on prominent Tibetan figures—even if it means violating China’s own constitution and criminal procedures law. Miscarriage of justice is the norm in Tibet under the Chinese legal system.
Such repression serves as a serious setback to China’s policies on Tibet. Tibet is today where rampant miscarriages of justice take place under the Chinese legal system.
Report filed by UN, EU & Human Rights Desk. Intern Kunchok Dolma contributed to the article