Monday, July 05, 2010

Expanding crime and punishment in Tibet

By Robert Barnett
NEW YORK ― China has been widely criticized for its harsh treatment of almost any form of political dissent in Tibet.
In 2008, for example, a Tibetan named Wangdu, an AIDS educator in Lhasa, received a life sentence for sending news about Tibetan protests to Tibetans abroad.
The logic was clear: preserve what China's leaders call "stability" and "harmony" in order to maintain state power.
But two recent events in Tibet, involving the trials of two leading Tibetans who had not attacked or criticized the state at all, do not follow this logic.
In the first trial, on June 24, Karma Samdrup, 42, one of the wealthiest Tibetan businessmen in China, received a 15-year sentence from a court in Xinjiang for stealing antiques.
Human rights groups suggested the charge was invented, because the police had dropped the case for lack of evidence when it was first investigated 12 years ago, and neither witnesses nor new evidence were produced in court.
Despite a detailed critique of the prosecution's case by two Chinese defense lawyers, the sentence, which had been known privately among officials for several days, was confirmed.
On July 3, Karma's elder brother, Rinchen Samdrup, 46, was tried on charges of "endangering state security."
His crime was failing to register a small environmental group run by him and his younger brother in their remote home village of Gonjo, in eastern Tibet.
Having been found guilty ― the conviction rate in China is around 98 percent, and is even higher in Tibet, so the verdict was never in doubt ― he was sentenced to five years in prison.
The younger brother, Chime Namgyal, 38, who is disabled, has been hospitalized since June 11 for serious injuries received whilst in custody.
He did not even receive a trial, but was given a 21-month sentence by local officials for the same offense as Rinchen ― endangering state security by unofficially organizing litter-collection, tree-planting, and nature patrols to stop the hunting of endangered species.
Even in China, such activities are not usually considered threats to the state.
These three cases are doubly inexplicable, because none of the three brothers has been accused of actually criticizing China, opposing the Communist Party, or even talking about politics.
On the contrary, they have been hailed as ideal Tibetan citizens.
Karma had founded and financed a leading Tibetan environmental organization in 2001, and was named China's philanthropist of the year in 2006 by China Central Television (for "creating harmony between men and nature").
And, last year, the One Foundation, a humanitarian fund run by the film star Jet Li, awarded him one million renminbi for his "model project."
Rinchen was well regarded, too.
His group was awarded a major environmental prize from Ford Motor Company in 2006, and in 2008 the Chinese government described him and his organization as "an extremely beneficial supplement to the government's environmental protection work."
This February, China's most important paper, the People's Daily, published a large photograph of him receiving the award, together with praise of his work. (The paper was apparently unaware that by then he had been in custody for five months.)
Indeed, a book praising the brothers for their work, Tianzhu ("Heavenly Beads"), was published in China late last year, to wide acclaim.
In June, for no apparent reason, the book was banned throughout the country, despite its lack of political content.
So, why is China targeting Tibetans who have no connection with politics and are regarded as model citizens?
Part of the answer may lie with corrupt local officials. Rinchen and Chime had criticized a local police chief for hunting endangered animals.
One of his superiors at the nearby prefectural headquarters in Chamdo is suspected of having decided to punish them, as well as two of their cousins, Sonam Choephel and Rinchen Dorje, who are also in custody in Tibet for vague or unspecified offenses.
But local officials could not have arranged for Karma to be tried in far-away Xinjiang, let alone persuade the central government to ban the brothers' innocuous book about their love of nature.
Higher-level leaders may have taken up the case against Karma ― persuading their counterparts in Xinjiang to resurrect the old antiques case ― because he had used his connections in Beijing to complain about the treatment of his brothers by officials in Tibet.
This theory has gained credence because the Communist Party's current leader in the Tibet Autonomous Region formerly held a powerful position in Xinjiang Province.
If it is true, the case against Karma suggests that officials stationed in Tibetan areas may be gaining more power, able to reach out beyond their jurisdictions to pursue what appear to be little more than personal grievances.
Nor are these the only cases.
Dorje Tashi, the wealthy owner of the Yak, a leading tourist hotel in Lhasa, is also said to be languishing in prison on vague political charges.
In Tibet, where for the last 30 years major Tibetan businessmen had been seen as natural allies of the state, such developments are unprecedented.
China's central government has the power to rein in its local chieftains, so its failure to do so in Tibet is puzzling.
If it continues to allow such cases to go forward, it risks losing even more credibility among those Tibetans who, like the three environmentalists, have tried to stay within the law and avoid politics.
Other Tibetans may conclude that China's government has relegated governance of their region to local satraps who have their own interests to pursue.
In an area full of suspicion and antagonism toward the state, expanding the targets of its political prosecutions from Tibetan protestors to environmentalists and from dissident monks to businessmen risks further undermining China's own objectives in its most troubled region.
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