1. Context: The drive against Tibetan self-immolations and “stability maintenance”
In Tibet, there has been a dramatic intensification of state control, which has taken the form of a violent crackdown since protests swept across the plateau in 2008. Since the self-immolations began, the authorities have gone so far as to characterize their approach in Tibetan areas as a “war against secessionist sabotage.” Jia Qinglin, former chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and a key figure in Tibet policy, outlined the hardline policies in the buildup to the Party Congress in Beijing in 2012 when he said that: “The country is in a key period of fighting against the Dalai Lama group.”
Instead of addressing the grievances of Tibetans as indicated, for example, in the countrywide protests in 2008 and in ongoing protests against, for example, discriminatory educational policies, environmental destruction, restriction on religion, or loss of cultural identity, the Party has deliberately chosen to react to dissent expressed by Tibetans with repression and a politicization of criminal law.
According to the Party’s narrative, it is outside forces, the Dalai Lama and his “clique,” “conducting separatist activities for a long time to sabotage the development and stability of Tibet,” while “at present, Tibet presents a picture mixing traditional and modern elements, featuring economic and political progress, cultural prosperity, social harmony, sound ecosystem and a happy and healthy life for the local people.”
As a result, and in order to remain in coherence with its interpretation of the state of affairs in Tibet, the Party has chosen to employ a “stability maintenance” approach which includes a systematic attempt to block news of the arrests, torture, disappearances and killings that have taken place across Tibet.
Furthermore, the Party pursues the strategy of actively establishing its presence in all layers of Tibetan society; for example, Chinese government or Communist Party officials are being stationed in monasteries permanently. This has led to a more pervasive and systematic approach to “patriotic education” and a dramatic increase in work teams and Party cadres, for example, in rural areas of the TAR.
Consequently, the Party portrays Tibetan self-immolations as a result of outside interference by the Dalai Lama, and not as an expression of legitimate grievances of those who self-immolate. Likewise, Beijing may see them as a threat to the legitimacy of China’s rule, as they challenge the claim of the Central State that there is a “happy and healthy life for the local people.”
The response of the Party state is twofold: firstly, it creates a narrative that those who self-immolate have been incited by others, necessarily outside forces or by those accused of instigating them. Secondly, it creates a repressive environment to deter individuals from self-immolating, by means of threatening to allocate punishment to communities, families and friends. While doing so, the authorities ignore and violate international human rights law, and even its own law, and thus abuse its power in the name of “maintaining stability.” The drive to criminalize self-immolations is indicative of such an abuse of power.
2. Charges of “inciting to self-immolation” and “intentional homicide” discriminatorily applied to Tibetans but not Chinese
In the recent past there have been a number of self-immolation incidents occurring in Chinese areas of the People’s Republic of China (not in Tibetan areas). In a series of self-immolations in reaction to forced evictions, at least 41 people of mostly Chinese ethnic origin have self-immolated in the PRC between 2009 and 2011.
In reaction to these self-immolations, the Chinese government has applied a variety of policies. In its 2012 report “Standing their ground,” Amnesty International documents 28 cases of self-immolations involving 41 individuals as a result of forced evictions in China. In most of these 28 cases, the report details that the authorities have not reacted to the self-immolations, neither by seeking redress of the situation nor by persecuting family or friends of the self-immolator. To the contrary, in at least seven of these cases, the authorities have sacked or investigated officials for their alleged wrongdoings against those who had been violently evicted. The report does not document any cases of legal persecution of the immediate environment of the self-immolator. In fact, in none of the cases, the authorities have applied the concept of “inciting to self-immolate” to anyone in the immediate environment of the self-immolator. There is no report about any investigations conducted by the authorities to that extent in these cases, let alone about charges for having committed “intentional homicide.”
With regard to self-immolations by Tibetans, a clearly different approach by the authorities is notable. In August 2011, two Tibetans were sentenced for “intentional homicide” and received sentences of 10 and 13 years imprisonment. In this case the concept of incitement to self-immolation and the resulting sentence of “intentional homicide” were apparently applied for the first time to Tibetans. According to Chinese state media’s report on the case, the two Tibetans sentenced had “plotted, instigated and assisted in the self-immolation of fellow monk Rigzin Phuntsog, causing his death.”
Furthermore, by the end of 2012, the Chinese authorities acted to impose new punishment regimes in response to the self-immolations in Tibet. While the wave of self-immolations in Tibet had begun already in 2009, there was a notable peak of self-immolations toward the end of 2012 that coincided with the Communist Party 18th National Congress in Beijing in November 2012. According to the new guidelines, “anyone who organizes, plots, incites, coerces, entices, abets, or assists others to commit self-immolations shall be held criminally liable for intentional homicide in accordance with the Criminal Law.”
Significantly, the authorities had treated such alleged “plots” differently in the past. In 2001, according to the state media, the authorities had detained Tibetan “spies” and “crushed a plot” to incite other Tibetans to self-immolate. Instead of being charged with “intentional homicide,” the concerned individuals were convicted on charges such as “agitating separatism and espionage.”
3. Portraying self-immolations in the state media
Particularly in the English language state media, the authorities have portrayed Tibetans who set fire to themselves since the self-immolations began in 2009 as psychologically unstable, criminals, or copycats, having fallen prey to outside manipulation. However, the response by Tibetans remained one of respect and compassion, as for example reflected in prayer ceremonies held for a deceased self-immolator or condolences offered to families.
But the further response, as apparent by the end of 2012, by the Party authorities portrays the self-immolator as being motivated “to split the nation and […] endanger public safety and social order, classifying their self-immolations as illegal criminal acts,” and signals that any involvement with someone who self-immolates – including simply witnessing it – can lead to a charge of ‘intentional homicide,’ with the authorities constructing a justification for severe penalties imposed such as long prison sentences and even the death penalty.
The state media has not announced severe penalties for Tibetans who survived self-immolation, perhaps due to concern that this might arouse further sympathy and thus be counter-productive. Instead those who survive self-immolation are ‘disappeared,’ and often their family and friends do not know where they are. Some of those who have survived have been used by state media for propaganda purposes, although they have not always adhered strictly to the Party line.
CASE STUDY 1: Sentenced to death for “intentional homicide” – the case of Lobsang Kunchok
In January, 2013, two Tibetan monks were convicted of ‘intentional homicide’
for ‘inciting and coercing eight people to self-immolate, resulting in three deaths, according to the state media. The state media acknowledged that five of the people that the monks were accused of ‘inciting’ had not actually self-immolated “after wilfully abandoning their plans or after police intervened.” (Xinhua, January 31, 2013). The official media was apparently referring to the self-immolation of Phuntsog on March 16, 2011, according to Tibetan sources, and possibly other self-immolations.
The first self-immolation in Tibet was carried out by a Kirti monk, Tapey, in Ngaba, and Kirti monks dominated in the total of self-immolations in the first two years; current or former Kirti monks made up 12 of the first 23 self-immolations (February 27, 2009, to February 19, 2012). As the frequency of self-immolations has increased and spread geographically across Tibet, the prevalence of Kirti Monastery monks among self-immolators decreased, and laypeople in different areas of Tibet have dominated the total. Further information about the specific self-immolations that Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering were accused of inciting is not available.
Tibetan monk Lobsang Kunchok was given a death sentence suspended for two years (which is normally converted to life), and his nephew Lobsang Tsering was sentenced to ten years.
They were the first cases of Tibetans to be prosecuted for ‘intentional homicide’ in connection with self-immolations following the publication of the ‘opinion’* in the Gansu newspaper in December 2012. The trials were accompanied by elaborate propaganda efforts, with news of the alleged conspiracy was covered in the official press and state television. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists: “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.”
State media coverage did not indicate any evidence for the charge of “intentional homicide.” The verdict caused great distress among Tibetans in the area. At the time of their sentencing, a Tibetan in exile who is from the region and had spoken to local Tibetans told ICT: “Lobsang Kunchok and his nephew are good men and respected in their local communities, and they are likely to have responded to requests to help families who were suffering. This sentencing to death can only make the situation worse and risk further self-immolations happening in Ngaba.”
The priorities of the authorities in seeking to suppress information reaching the outside world, and other areas of Tibet, are evident in the further charges imposed on Lobsang Kunchok for sending out information regarding self-immolations, which it said was “used by some overseas media as a basis for creating secessionist propaganda.” The police had initially accused both Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering of carrying out the instructions of the Dalai Lama and his followers, according to Tibetans in exile.
The sentences were handed down by the Intermediate People’s Court of Ngaba prefecture. On January 28, Xinhua had acknowledged that the two Tibetans were not represented by their own lawyers. Despite an assertion by a judge who told the Global Times that: “authorities obtained sufficient evidence showing it [the alleged crimes] had been instructed by ‘forces from abroad’,” no evidence was presented to justify the sentencing.
According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, “According to PRC law, the trials of the monks on charges of ‘intentional homicide’ should not have been heard before a county-level court—instead, the trial should have been heard before the Aba T&QAP Intermediate People’s Court. Article 20(2) of the Criminal Procedure Law states, ‘The Intermediate People’s Courts shall have jurisdiction as courts of first instance over […]ordinary criminal cases punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty.’ Article 232 of the Criminal Law states, ‘Whoever intentionally commits homicide shall be sentenced to death, life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 10 years; if the circumstances are relatively minor, he shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 3 years but not more than 10 years.’ Official media reports have provided no information on why trials on charges punishable by the death penalty or life imprisonment were heard before a county-level court. An additional unusual aspect of the trials is that the county court that reportedly tried the cases was not the county court with jurisdiction over the site where the alleged crimes were committed: Kirti Monastery is in Ngaba, not Barkham, county. The Barkham County People’s Court is located in the prefectural capital, along with the Ngaba T&QAP Intermediate People’s Court.”
In a response to a question from the press on August 29, 2011, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said the government was “concerned” by the conviction for “intentional homicide.” The spokesperson also said: “We urge the Chinese government to ensure transparency and to uphold the procedural protections and rights to which Chinese citizens are entitled under China’s Constitution and laws and under international standards.”
CASE STUDY 2: Detained for holding prayer services: the cases of monks Tsundue and Gedun Tsultrim
Two monks, Tsundue and Gedun Tsultrim, were sentenced to three years each in prison after they held prayers for a Tibetan, Wangchen Norbu, who set fire to himself and died. Tsundue, who is in his late twenties, and 30-year old Gedun Tsultrim, were detained on November 21, 2012, as they were on their way to pay their respects and say prayers at the home of Wangchen Norbu. Other monks and laypeople were also blocked from going to Wangchen Norbu’s house, and some of them prayed by the road where they were stopped by police and officials.
It was the first known case of monks being sentenced for praying, or attempting to pray, for a Tibetan who has self-immolated. It is possible that the monks took responsibility for organizing the prayers in order to protect the broader community.
Both lay people and monks who had been attempting to walk to Wangchen Norbu’s home to carry out traditional prayers were subject to harassment and intimidation afterwards. The sentencing of Tsundue and Gedun Tsultrim is likely to have been intended to send a warning to others. According to one Tibetan who spoke to sources, it also appears to indicate that they took responsibility for organizing the prayers in order to protect others.
According to the same exile Tibetan sources, Tsundue, in his late twenties, was accused of being the organizer of a prayer ceremony following the self-immolation at his monastery, Bido in the neighboring township to Kangtsa in Xunhua (Do-wi) Salar Autonomous County in Tsoshar (Chinese: Haidong) prefecture, Qinghai. He was also accused of being one of the main monks intending to lead the traditional prayers at Wangchen Norbu’s home two days after he self-immolated. Gedun Tsultrim, who was a chant-master in charge of prayers at a monk at Bido monastery in Bido township, was accused of collecting offerings made by monks for Wangchen Norbu’s family, and for organizing monks to go to his family home for prayers.
Monks and local people sought their release but failed to convince the local authorities, and the monks’ families did not receive any documentation clarifying the sentences. The two monks are believed to be held in Xining and it is not known if families have been given permission to visit them.
Eventually, the authority announced that Gendun Tseltrim was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Since then, the two monks were transferred to a prison in Xining and the authorities have not given permission to the families and relatives to visit them.
Wangchen Norbu, in his mid-twenties, had died after self-immolating two days earlier near Kangtsa Gaden Choepheling monastery in Kangtsa in Xunhua County in Tsoshar prefecture, Qinghai province.
Sources in the region say that Wangchen Norbu set himself ablaze and shouted slogans calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, release of the Panchen Lama and freedom for Tibet. Kangtsa is adjacent to the hometown of the late 10th Panchen Lama in Xunhua county, Tsoshar prefecture, Qinghai province (the Tibetan region of Amdo).
CASE STUDY 3: Death penalty after unfair trial – the case of Dolma Kyab
Dolma Kyab (Photo: Phayul.com)
There are serious concerns for a Tibetan man, Dolma Kyab, who was sentenced to death in August (2013) after being accused of murdering his wife
, Kunchok Wangmo. Reports from Tibetan sources indicate that she may have self-immolated and that the authorities have sought to build a case against Dolma Kyab. The trial was held in secret and the state media made no mention of any evidence other than a “confession” by Dolma Kyab, who has been tortured according to Tibetan sources in exile.
Dolma Kyab (Chinese transliteration: Drolma Gya), was sentenced to death by the Intermediate People’s Court in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) for “killing his wife and burning her body to make it look as if she had self-immolated” according to the Chinese state media on August 16, 2013.
The imposition of the death penalty is rare in Tibet and there are concerns that the verdict may have been influenced by political circumstances. Dolma Kyab is being held in prison in Barkham (Chinese: Maerkang), the capital of Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo). According to Tibetan sources in exile, he has been severely tortured.
A death penalty case must be reviewed by a higher court according to Chinese law. If a first trial by an intermediate people’s court hands down the death penalty, the first appeal is conducted by a High People’s Court’ and also by the Supreme People’s Court. The higher courts have the power to change the verdict, including the imposition of a death sentence suspended for two years, which generally means life imprisonment. If the death penalty is upheld without reprieve, the execution is generally carried out shortly afterwards. The current status of Dolma Kyab’s case is not known.
Tibetan sources report that Dolma Kyab was tortured prior to his trial, and that he has declared his innocence. His current welfare is not known. According to the same sources, it appears that Dolma Kyab did not receive a fair trial and due process, without effective legal counsel of his own choosing. The state media report on his sentencing makes no mention of any evidence in this case other than a ‘confession,’ and it is known that torture is frequently used to extract confessions in China.
The circumstances of the case are still unclear due to the oppressive political environment and climate of fear in the area. According to some Tibetan sources, which could not be fully confirmed, Kunchok Wangmo set fire to herself late at night in March, 2013, and died. The authorities in Ngaba appear to have sought to build a case against Dolma Kyab, accusing him of killing his wife. Various Tibetan sources reported that on the morning after Kunchok Wangmo’s death, security officials came to the family home and offered substantial bribes for Dolma Kyab to say that she had committed suicide due to family problems. The same sources say that his arrest followed his refusal to do so, although full details of the circumstances are not known.