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.

An aggressive drive is underway to criminalize self-immolations in Tibet. In January, a Tibetan monk named Lobsang Kunchok was given a suspended death sentence, and his nephew Lobsang Tsering sentenced to ten years for “intentional homicide” connected to the self-immolation of eight Tibetans in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) – although five of the self-immolations never occurred (ICT report, Distress at death sentence for Tibetan accused of ‘inciting ‘self-immolation’). The severe sentences were the first to be imposed against individuals who have allegedly ‘incited’ or ‘coerced’ Tibetans to self-immolate.

The sentencing and elaborate propaganda efforts surrounding the trial of Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering (news of the alleged conspiracy was covered in the official press and state television) demonstrated a hard line and more systematic response by the authorities to recast the self-immolations as criminal acts and attribute blame for the self-immolations to ‘outside forces.’

Despite these measures, the wave of self-immolations across Tibet has continued. A Tibetan monk, Tsultrim Gyatso, set fire to himself and died on December 19 (ICT, Monks gather to pray after self-immolation of respected Tibetan monk in Amchok).