In the backdrop of relentless crackdown on self-immolation protests including arbitrary arrests, detention, intimidation, monetary inducements and long prison terms, the Chinese authorities have sentenced two Tibetans on “intentional homicide” charges, one was given suspended death sentence while the other received 10-yr prison term for “inciting” and “coercing” eight people to self-immolate, out of which three died. The five others did not self-immolate after they changed their minds or due to police intervention, so goes the account published in official Chinese newspapers.
On 31 January, the Intermediate People’s Court of Ngaba (Ch: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture handed Lobsang Kunchok, 40, with death penalty with two years’ reprieve and deprivation of political rights for life. His nephew, Lobsang Tsering, 31, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with his political rights deprived for three years, according to the Chinese government-owned news agency Xinhua. The same day, the Sangchu (Ch: Xiahe) County People’s Court in Kanlho (Ch: Gannan) Prefecture in Gansu Province sentenced six Tibetans to three to 12 years in prison for their alleged roles in the self-immolation of a Tibetan in October 2012, Chinese state media reported.
The latest sentencing is the first of its kind where a known Tibetan has been given a suspended death penalty for ‘inciting’ or ‘abetting’ self-immolation protests, a charge the Chinese government calls ‘intentional homicide’. Chinese authorities have used article 233 in its Criminal Law which stipulates a punishment of three to ten years of imprisonment for intentional homicide “if the circumstances are relatively minor”; and at least 10 years of imprisonment up to the death penalty in more serious circumstances.
It is telling that Tibetan self-immolations, considered by many as a form of political protest to express one’s grievances, are criminalized as ‘murder’ using Chinese criminal code. Although it may help Chinese government give an appearance of legality to the sentencing process, the misuse of legal provisions for fulfilling political objectives is highly condemnable.
Both Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering were detained in August 2012 but their detention and police charges against them were announced only in December 2012 by the Chinese government. By then, the Chinese authorities had made public, guidelines issued by China’s top judicial and law-enforcement authorities to specifically criminalise activities related to self-immolation under its Criminal Law provisions. Furthermore, the incommunicado nature of their detention allows the law enforcement agencies much room to maneuver the interrogation process and obtain forced confessions. The politicised nature of Chinese judiciary allows government and Party officials to interfere in politically-sensitive cases. Both men were represented by Chinese government-appointed lawyers, with Xinhua saying that the men “did not hire any lawyers themselves.” However, in Tibet many suspects are denied their own choice of lawyers due to political sensitivity with which cases involving Tibetans are viewed by the Chinese authorities. Even the lawyers themselves who muster up enough courage to represent Tibetan clients had been intimidated and pressured by the authorities in the past.
While on the one hand, Chinese government is aiming to discredit Tibetan immolations by criminalising such acts, another equally significant motivation is to establish a link between the burning protests in Tibet and their so-called ‘instigators’ and ‘inciters’ in exile. Chinese authorities have indicated a political objective in sentencing Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering. As Hong Lei, spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “We hope through the sentencing of these cases, the international community will be able to clearly see the evil and malicious methods used by the Dalai clique in the self-immolations and condemn their crimes.”
The politicisation of judiciary by the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party in Tibet is not new. On 2 April 2008 at a meeting convened by TAR Higher People’s Court, Pema Thinley, then vice governor of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and also deputy secretary of Standing Committee of TAR Communist Party’s Political and Legal Affairs (Ch: Xizang zi zhiqu dang wei chang wei zheng fa wei fu shu ji), called on the judiciary to “act fast and strike hard on Dalai clique.” In addition, he told that stringent legal action should be taken based on Party policy so that the final verdict would gain political, legal and social dividends, and thus achieve political and social stability.
With the 31 January sentencing of eight Tibetans including suspended death sentence for Lobsang Kunchok, the Chinese government may hope to put all the blame on ‘Dalai clique’ or ‘foreign forces’ and put an end to self-immolation protests. But the writing on the wall is unmistakably clear. 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. Far from acting as a deterrent to self-immolation or damaging the reputation of the “Dalai clique”, such arbitrary and unjust sentencing will only aggravate the already explosive situation in Tibet.