A fifth Tibetan has been sentenced to death on charges relating to arson on March 14 in Lhasa, according to a report in the official press on April 21.

A report in English on China Daily online named the Tibetan sentenced to death with a two year reprieve as Penkyi of Sakya county in Shigatse. Penkyi and two other Tibetans were found guilty of starting a fatal fire in a Lhasa clothing shop that resulted in the deaths of five shop employees.

Mary Beth Markey, Vice President for Advocacy at the International Campaign for Tibet said: “There is no evidence that these young women were granted a fair trial and proper legal access in accordance with China’s own laws, rendering these sentences intolerable by the international community.”

Penkyi, identified by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) as a female from Sakya county, Shigatse (Chinese: Xigaze) prefecture, Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), received a death sentence with a two year reprieve, signaling that if she commits no serious crimes for two years of imprisonment, the death sentence will be commuted to life. A second defendant, also named Penkyi, a 23-year old female from Nyemo (Chinese: Nimo) county, Lhasa municipality, TAR, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The third defendant, Chime, a 20-year old female from Namling (Chinese: Nanmulin) county, Shigatse prefecture, TAR, was given a ten year sentence.

This new announcement one year on from the March rioting in Lhasa follows the sentencing of four Tibetans to death, two of whom were given a two year reprieve, also on charges relating to “starting fatal fires” by the Lhasa Intermediate People’s Court announced on April 8 (ICT report, Two Tibetans sentenced to death in Lhasa).

These are the first known death sentences passed against Tibetans in connection with the Lhasa riots on March 14, 2008. One other Tibetan was given a life sentence, with five Tibetans being charged in total in three separate court cases involving arson announced on April 8, reportedly involving the deaths of seven people, according to the state media.

In the verdict announced on April 21, the China Daily article stated that “the court showed leniency on the two Penkyis,” who were accused of leading the arsons, because they “had turned themselves in to police.”

The three were tried by the Lhasa Intermediate People’s Court, where they were “provided with Tibetan language interpreters,” according to the China Daily. Due to the authorities’ attempts to block all information flow it was not possible to confirm details about the case or about the evidence against the three women, nor to authenticate rumors circulating in Lhasa about the case.

Despite a court spokesman’s assurances that the trials “had been open and strictly abided by the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China,” serious concerns remain about the fairness of the procedures and the treatment of detainees in custody prior to sentencing. While China Daily reported that the three defendants had attorneys who “expressed their arguments in full,” and on April 23 Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said that the “defendants could commission their own lawyers to defend them; and for those who did not, lawyers were assigned to defend them according to the law,” evidence following earlier trials of Tibetans points to Tibetans being denied the right to be represented by the lawyer of their choice due to the highly political nature of the cases, with several lawyers being threatened with disbarment if they attempted to represent detained Tibetans. (See ‘China: Rights Lawyers Face Disbarment Threats: Intimidation Overshadows Reforms to Law on Lawyers,’ May 20, 2008, Human Rights Watch).

A suspended death sentence is one where a death sentence is imposed, but it is postponed for two years while the prisoner’s behavior continues to be assessed. It is very rare, however, that people given suspended death sentences are ever actually executed. Those who have been executed committed fairly major transgressions in prison, such as serious violence against other prisoners or prison staff.

For further information on the protests in Tibet that began on March 10, 2008 and spread across the Tibetan plateau over the past year, see: ‘A Great Mountain Burned by Fire: China’s Crackdown in Tibet‘ »