A Tibetan lama, Phurbu Rinpoche from Kham, has been sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. It is the first sentence known to have been handed down to an important religious teacher in Tibet since protests broke out across the plateau in March, 2008. Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche, a respected Tibetan lama from Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) prefecture in Sichuan province (the Tibetan area of Kham) was detained in May 2008 and initially charged with illegal possession of weapons and ammunition, and charges relating to allegations he misappropriated a government-owned building. Phurbu Rinpoche was initially allowed to be represented by two leading lawyers from Beijing. However, they were not allowed to attend further legal proceedings and have since been disbarred along with over 40 other lawyers who took on high-profile human rights cases. The two Chinese lawyers defending Phurbu Rinpoche said that serious violations of Chinese law had occurred during his case and that the charges against him “lack factual clarity and sufficient evidence.”

The two Chinese lawyers who initially represented Phurbu Rinpoche, Li Fangping and Jiang Tianyong, said in a statement dated April 21, 2009, that Phurbu Rinpoche had been tortured while in custody, including being “handcuffed by an alternating hand each day to an iron pillar in the interrogation room, and with arms outstretched and unable to sit down he was interrogated continuously for four days and four nights by a team of six people in three units of two people; at the same time the defendant was told that if he did not confess that the weapons and explosives were his, then his wife and son would be detained.” For a full translation into English of the lawyers’ statement, see: ICT report, Verdict on Tibetan lama deferred: Chinese lawyers’ statement on charges against Phurbu Rinpoche).

According to sources in Tibet, Phurbu Rinpoche was sentenced on December 23, 2009 by the Dartsedo (Chinese: Kangding) People’s Intermediate Court. The same source reported that his wife and son were allowed to attend his sentencing. The lawyers who had previously represented Phurbu Rinpoche were denied access and were replaced by a lawyer appointed by the local government. Phurbu Rinpoche’s verdict was due to be announced on April 28, 2009, but his lawyers were later informed by the Deputy Director of the court in Kangding that the sentencing had been postponed and no new date had been set.

Phurbu Rinpoche, who is in his early fifties, was detained shortly after some 80 nuns from Pangri-na nunnery, where he was abbot, held a peaceful protest on May 14, 2008. The nuns marched in protest to the Kardze county government offices, after which they were beaten and arrested. A large number of protests have taken place in the Kardze region since protests began in Lhasa on March 10, 2008, often led by Tibetan nuns from nearby nunneries.

A scholar who knows Phurbu Rinpoche and has visited the nunnery on various occasions told ICT: “Due to his religious status, Phurbu Rinpoche’s concern for his country and people generated a sincere sense of responsibility. He once told me that it was in order to fulfill his urge to do something for his people that he established a small nunnery that would give renewed luster to his century-old lineage and the thousand-year old religious culture of Tibet. Thanks to private donations and support from the local populace, he finally built the Pangri nunnery in Singo village just outside Kardze town. Although he is a lay teacher, he is very attentive to the education of the nuns who not only study under the supervision of a local spiritual leader and Phurbu Rinpoche himself, but also receive more specific instructions by other prestigious masters who visit them regularly from neighboring monasteries.”

The same scholar said that while Rinpoche was deeply concerned about changes in Tibet and Tibetan culture, “He never attacked nor criticized the Chinese government or the local authorities with whom he has always tried to maintain a healthy and mutually respectful dialogue. He has always been interested in finding compromises rather than aiming at harsh and aggressive resolutions.”

The sentencing of Phurbu Rinpoche coincides with ongoing protests and high tensions in Nyagchuka (Chinese: Yajiang) and Lithang (Chinese: Litang) counties, which neighbor Kardze county to the south, over the continued imprisonment of another highly respected religious leader, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. As with Phurbu Rinpoche, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche oversaw not only a religious revival among the communities in his area, he also established schools, old people’s homes and religious institutions while advocating close and cooperative community ties with local authorities. However, he is currently serving a life sentence following his detention in 2002 on alleged bombing charges. Since at least May 2007, thousands of people in Nyagchuka county and beyond have signed petitions in support of Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. Security has been stepped up in his home area in the Tibetan area of Kham, part of present-day Sichuan province, and dozens of Tibetans were detained and beaten in the area in December after peaceful demonstrations calling for the Rinpoche’s retrial and release. Increased numbers of armed police and troops have been stationed in towns and villages where protests occurred – in an area that is already tense since demonstrations against Chinese rule spread across Tibet in March 2008 (ICT report, Tibetans defy security crackdown to demonstrate in support of imprisoned Tibetan lama).