The Chinese government’s repression of political dissent in Tibetan areas warrants fact-finding visits by United Nations human rights experts, Human Rights Watch said, releasing a new compilation of cases and sentences against Tibetans.
On February 21, 2018, six UN experts called for the release of Tibetan language rights advocate Tashi Wangchuk, who awaits sentencing on baseless charges of “inciting separatism.” The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy reported that, in January, veteran dissident Tsegon Gyal was sentenced to three years in prison, also for “inciting separatism,” charges that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention last year said had “no legal basis.” These cases fit a larger pattern of arbitrary and incommunicado detention, followed by closed trials resulting in long sentences, Human Rights Watch said.
“The harsh sentences handed down to peaceful Tibetan dissidents fly in the face of Chinese government claims to merely be enforcing the law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “China should invite UN rights experts to assess the imprisonment of Tibetans denied access to family and counsel, mistreated in custody and unjustly convicted.”
It is difficult to assess how many Tibetans are, or have been, imprisoned in recent years for dissenting views or to learn the details of their cases: information about sentences from Tibetan areas is tightly restricted, and people who report detentions and prosecutions abroad are themselves at risk of arrest.
One of the few remaining sources are reports that appear in Tibetan exile media when prisoners are released. While such reports appear years after the arrests that led to imprisonment, they set forth basic facts about the cases, and thus provide a basis for identifying trends. The analysis that follows is based on Human Rights Watch review of such reports since 2016. These 30 cases are consistent with the patterns of a 2016 Human Rights Watch report on patterns of detentions and prosecutions in Tibet.
One cluster of cases reflects the Chinese government’s response to the wave of self-immolation protests in 2011-12, in which dozens of Tibetans attempted public suicides to draw attention to the denial of basic freedoms. In these 10 cases, courts handed down sentences ranging from three to seven years in prison for alleged involvement in self-immolation protests. Their offenses, where known, include attempting to prevent security forces from seizing the remains of protesters, and consoling bereaved relatives. Some were relatives and associates, accused of inciting the protests. Three of the 10 were reportedly released in poor health due to alleged mistreatment in custody. Another three were monks from Kirti monastery in Sichuan province, who were detained as they attempted self-immolations and subsequently given five-year prison sentences, despite Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2012 reassurance that the central government regarded them as “innocent.”
Another cluster of cases consist of four monks and two laymen, detained for their involvement in the widespread peaceful protests in March and April 2008. Among them, monk Labrang Jigme served three successive incarcerations since 2008 and frequent hospitalization following alleged torture in custody. Choktrin Gyatso was the only one of three monks at Tsang monastery in Gepasumdo county to complete their nine-year prison sentences; two colleagues were released early in poor health due to alleged mistreatment in custody. Layman Jampal was released early from a 13-year sentence due to poor health.
Six of those released are popular singers, who had been sentenced to four to six years in prison for performing songs considered to promote Tibetan nationalism, though the exact charges against them are not known.
Jamyang Kunkhyen and senior monk Atruk Lopo – relatives of Ronggye Adrak, who spoke out against the Chinese government at a public event in Litang in 2007, – were sentenced to 10 years in prison for sharing information about the case. Veteran dissident Sonam Gyalpo was rearrested in 2005 for possession of photos of the Dalai Lama and related literature, and sentenced to 12 years.
Tsegon Gyal, a former police forensic analyst and crime journalist, was originally sentenced to 16 years in prison in 1993 for allegedly forming an underground political organization, although the Qinghai province Higher People’s Court later reduced his sentence to six years. The grounds for his detention in December 2016 and conviction for “separatism” are not clear, but are apparently related to a social media post in which he criticized the government’s “nationality unity” policies.
UN scrutiny of China’s human rights record, including China’s 2008 and 2013 Universal Periodic Reviews, as well as its 2015 review under the Convention against Torture, were critical of restrictions on Tibetans’ civil, cultural, economic, and political rights. In February 2017, six UN special rapporteurs formally expressed concern to the Chinese government about the mass expulsion in late 2016 of monks and nuns, and the demolition of living quarters at the Larung Gar monastery in Kandze, Sichuan province.
Chinese authorities should cease prosecuting people for peaceful dissent, including under abusive charges such as “endangering state security” and “separatism,” Human Rights Watch said. The government should grant access to Tibetan areas for UN rights experts to document alleged rights violations and report publicly on possible accountability measures.
“The situation in Tibet will continue to deteriorate, so long as Chinese authorities prevent Tibetans from exercising their basic rights,” Richardson said. “China could show the world they are serious about addressing these rampant abuses by admitting UN rights experts into Tibetan areas.”