The Lhasa Intermediate People’s Court in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), April 8 sentenced two Tibetans to death on charges relating to “starting fatal fires,” according to an official report. These are the first known death sentences passed against Tibetans in connection with the Lhasa riots of March 2008. Two other Tibetans were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve and one other was sentenced to life imprisonment in a total of three separate cases of arson, reportedly involving the deaths of seven people.
The official report names Losang Gyaltse (Gyaltsen) as being sentenced to death “for setting fire to two garment shops in downtown Lhasa on March 14  that killed a shop owner Zuo Rencun.” Another local Tibetan named Loyar received the death penalty, Gangtsu was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, and Dawa Sangpo was sentenced to life imprisonment. A defendant called Tenzin Phuntsog was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve for setting fire to a garment shop in which the husband and wife owners of the shop were injured and their daughter killed.
In reference to the Chinese authorities’ assertion that the “Dalai clique” orchestrated the protests, a spokesman explained that the court had been lenient on Tenzin Phuntsog because “he had been put up to the violence,” and had “showed a positive attitude in admitting his crime after he was arrested,” whereas Losang Gyaltsen and Loyar “have to be executed to assuage the people’s anger.” A similar case allegedly involving the deaths of five people in a fire is reportedly “still under trial,” but the report did not say how many defendants were involved in that trial, nor when a verdict and sentence are expected.
There are serious concerns about the fairness of the procedures and the treatment of the detainees in custody prior to sentencing. While the report from the official Xinhua news agency states that detainees had legal representation, there is evidence that in earlier trials of Tibetans following last year’s protests the rights of defendants to be represented by the lawyer of their choice was ignored by the judicial authorities. In the immediate wake of the March 2008 protests, several lawyers were threatened with disbarment if they attempted to represent detained Tibetans, according to Human Rights Watch. (See “China: Rights Lawyers Face Disbarment Threats,” May 2008.)
Another Human Rights Watch report released in March 2009 states that the convictions of Tibetans over the past year “reflect a pattern of systematic political interference with legal and judicial processes in the name of an ideologically-driven ‘anti-separatist campaign’ under the Communist Party leadership. The principle of independence of the judiciary is thoroughly undermined by the leadership’s demand that court and police tailor their actions to political requirements.” (“China: Hundreds of Tibetan Detainees and Prisoners Unaccounted For“). (Save Tibet, April 9)
Amnesty International also condemned the death sentences, noting China’s Supreme People’s Court will have to review the death sentences, as it does in all death penalty cases. “We have recorded a pattern of unfair trials leading to death sentences in China. Under these conditions it’s very unlikely that these sentences stand up. We urge the death sentences to be overturned,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director.
The Tibetan Youth Congress said it “condemns the highly biased and politically motivated verdict of the court and the judiciary system of China which purposely serves to meet the demands and wishes of the Chinese Communist Government and its policies.” The TYC said the verdicts further “underline the Chinese communist government’s fifty years of disparaging occupation of Tibet and its fatal ongoing policy of destroying the Tibetans as a race, culture and people.”
The TYC statement said China should try the Tibetans in a “fair court with attorney of the defendant’s choice and representatives either from independent human rights monitoring organizations or the United Nations.” According to Amnesty International, China carried out at least 1,718 executions in 2008 and sentenced 7,003 people to death. (Phayul, April 10)
Around 35 Tibetan exiles were arrested after they held a peaceful protest carrying anti-China banners in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu April 9. Tibetan protesters, who gathered at Thamel— Kathmandu’s tourist hub—were immediately bundled into waiting police trucks. (AFP, April 9)
In a possible sign of renewed militant protests, a police station March 29, leaving two police officers hurt, in Xining, capital of Qinghai province, which neighbors Tibet and has a substantial Tibetan population. The incident came a day after China launched a new national holiday for Tibetans called “Serf’s Liberation Day” to mark what the 1959 overthrow of the Dalai Lama. (AFP, March 28)
See our last post on Tibet.