BEIJING — A Chinese court on Friday sentenced a man to 13 years in prison for inciting an ethnic Tibetan monk to set himself on fire, the latest punishment meted out in a crackdown as Chinese authorities try to stop a string of self-immolation protests that has reached almost 100 incidents.
The monk in China’s western Qinghai Province did not actually carry out the self-immolation in November, according to the state Xinhua news wire. But the court found the man, a 27-year-old ethnic Tibetan named Phagpa, guilty of “intentional homicide” for trying to get the monk to do so. Phagpa – many Tibetans have only one name – was also judged guilty of “inciting secession” for “efforts to spread ideas related to ‘Tibetan independence.’”
The same court on Friday also sentenced a man identified as a 60-year-old Tibetan herdsman named Gyadehor to four years in prison for inciting secession. Gyadehor had “spread opinions” about Tibetan independence when he brought cash and goods to console families of those who had self-immolated, Xinhua said.
The court found that his actions “constituted the crime of inciting a split of the state,” according to Xinhua.
Chinese authorities have failed so far to halt the fiery protests, which Beijing claims are the result of a conspiracy hatched by the “Dalai Lama clique,” a reference to the Tibetan spiritual leader who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959. Ethnic Tibetans in areas where the self-immolations have occurred, however, blame an oppressive atmosphere that they said has been created by a government campaign against their language, culture and religion.
The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group that tracks the incidents, puts the tally of self-immolations at 98 since March 2011, and 99 since one in February 2009. More than 80 are said to have died.
The self-immolations began in a Tibetan enclave of China’s western Sichuan province and have spread to three adjoining areas: Tibet itself, which is tightly controlled by Beijing and known formally as the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.
While some observers wondered whether the new head of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, might bring a softer approach to the issue after taking power last year, state media have reported a series of moves that seem designed to deter further immolations by getting tough on those left behind.
On Jan. 31, Xinhua reported that six ethnic Tibetans in Gansu province had been sentenced to between three and 12 years in prison after a self-immolation there and an ensuing confrontation between local residents and police. On the same day, a court in Sichuan sentenced one man to death with a two-year-reprieve and his nephew to 10 years for “inciting eight people to self-immolate, three of whom died.”
On Thursday, Xinhua announced that authorities in Qinghai had since November detained 70 “criminal suspects” and formally arrested 12 of them. Among the 70 was a man named Phagpa, a man whose same name and similar alleged actions make clear that he was the person who was sentenced on Friday.
Xinhua said that Phagpa traveled illegally in 2005 from China to India, where he received training at “an institute specially created for the ‘Tibetan independence’ forces of the Dalai Lama clique.”
After returning to China, Xinhua said, Phagpa taught English at an orphanage and “delivered agitative speeches at the funerals of self-immolators.” He also was accused of inciting more than 50 primary school students and local herders to gather in front of a government building and shout pro-Tibetan independence slogans.
In November, the monk who Phagpa had allegedly convinced to self-immolate checked into a hotel, bringing gasoline with him.
The state-controlled China Daily newspaper reported on Friday that the monk, identified as a man named Drolma Je, was stopped from lighting himself on fire by a relative.
An earlier Xinhua report said that the monk is also in custody and facing charges.
Nearly 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in apparent protest against Beijing’s rule, which critics say represses Tibetan religious rights and erodes their culture as more majority ethnic Han move to Tibetan areas.
According to the Tibetan government in exile, 83 of them have died.
With the 100th incident approaching, Chinese authorities have embarked on an extensive publicity drive on the issue, with both Xinhua and CCTV, the state broadcaster, covering it at length.
They said that outside forces linked to the Dalai Lama were manipulating vulnerable young people, telling them that burning themselves alive would make them heroes, while CCTV said coded messages on Voice of America radio were used.
VOA described the claims as “absurd”.
In the latest court case Xinhua reported that Phagpa encouraged the monk, named as Drolma Je, to self-immolate for “freedom and independence of the Tibetan ethnic group”, but he was dissuaded by his sister.
The 27-year-old defendant was also found to have spread Tibetan independence “ideas” and incited demonstrations, the report said.
The monk’s monastery is in Tongren county, the report said, an area which has become a flashpoint for a wave of self-immolations.
The judgment follows two Tibetans being convicted of murder last week for inciting others to burn themselves to death. One was given a suspended death penalty and the other 10 years in prison, state media reported.
Another six were convicted in a similar case. The judgments were believed to be the first of their kind since judicial authorities were told to use murder charges in such incidents.
State media reported on Thursday that 70 people have been detained in Huangnan prefecture, which includes Tongren, in connection with “a string of self-immolations” since November 2012.
Beijing seeks to blame the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, for the deaths. It also points to huge on-going investment in Tibetan areas.
DHARAMSHALA, February 8: In no let up to the sentencing of Tibetans in connection with the self-immolations protests, another Tibetan was today sentenced to 13 years in jail by a Chinese court.
The sentencing comes even as the United States and international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch have condemned earlier similar court rulings, calling the prosecutions “utterly without credibility.”
According to Chinese state agency Xinhua, the Intermediate People’s Court of the Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture convicted Phagpa, 27, of “intentional homicide and inciting split of the state.”
He was found guilty of “indoctrinating” Dolma Kyab, 25, a monk at the Dowa Monastery in Rebkong and “convincing” him to self-immolate to achieve “freedom and independence for the Tibetan ethnic group,” the report said.
Phagpa is supposed to have accepted his “mistake” and said that he will not lodge an appeal.
The court ruling further accused Phagpa of propagating ideas related to “Tibetan independence” giving the self-immolators’ relatives money, as well as portraits of members of the “Tibetan government-in-exile.”
Xinhua earlier said that Dolma Kyab was arrested on November 19 after he was found to have stored gasoline in a hotel room and accused Phagpa of maintaining “close contact with key members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, the exile based largest pro-independence group.
Last month, Chinese courts sentenced a Tibetan Lobsang Kunchok to death with a two-year reprieve and Lobsang Tsering to 10 years on charges of “intentional homicide.” The same day, another court sentenced six Tibetans to varying jail terms of 12 to three years in jail on similar charges.
Following the sentencing, New York based global rights group, Human Rights Watch, said Chinese authorities should “immediately release” Kunchok and Tsering, while noting that their conviction “relied solely on confessions they gave during five months in detention.”
“These prosecutions are utterly without credibility,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The Chinese government seems to think it can stop self-immolation by punishing anyone who talks about it. But in pursuing these ‘incitement’ cases, the government compounds the tragedy of these suicide protests.”
HRW noted that it has documented “endemic use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and coercion of Tibetans in detention.”
Earlier this week, Dharamshala based rights group Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said the court sentencing comes in the backdrop of “relentless crackdown on self-immolation protests including arbitrary arrests, detention, intimidation, monetary inducements, and long prison terms.”
The group pointed out that China’s criminalisation of the self-immolations as “murder” is a “highly condemnable” misuse of legal provisions for fulfilling political objectives.
TCHRD further noted that the “politicised nature of Chinese judiciary allows government and Party officials to interfere in politically-sensitive cases.”
“The Chinese government needs to seriously address the real causes of self-immolation protests; it needs to acknowledge that the burning protests are a direct result of its destructive policies,” the rights group said.