Loyak, pictured, was executed on October 20, 2009 for his alleged involvement in the protests and rioting in Lhasa on March 14, 2008. (TCHRD)

Two Tibetans were executed in Lhasa for their alleged roles in the protests and rioting in Lhasa on March 14, 2008, according to reports by Tibetan exile organizations confirmed by the Chinese embassy in London on Friday (October 23). Lobsang Gyaltsen and Loyak were sentenced to death in April 2009 on charges relating to “starting fatal fires,” according to a report in the Chinese state media. They are the first known executions of Tibetans in connection with the Lhasa riot on March 14, 2008 although others have been killed following torture in custody.

The Dharamsala, India-based NGO Gu Chu Sum, which helps former political prisoners, reported on the executions on October 21, however, the executions of two other Tibetans in Lhasa, a woman called Penkyi and an unnamed Tibetan reported by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) based in Dharamsala, were not officially confirmed. A Tibetan woman, Penkyi, from Shigatse, had received a suspended death sentence, although it is rare that people given suspended death sentences in China are actually executed.

TCHRD reported that the body of Lobsang Gyaltsen (Chinese transliteration: Losang Gyaltse) was handed over to his family after the death sentence had been carried out by shooting, and was later immersed in the Kyichu (Lhasa) river. It is not known why a river burial, rare in Lhasa compared to sky burials, was carried out. The ashes of Loyak were returned to his family, TCHRD reported.

The first strong public statement from a foreign government came from the British Foreign Office Minister Ivan Lewis, who raised concern about both death penalty cases during the first UK Ministerial visit to Lhasa last month. In a statement on the Foreign Office website, Mr. Lewis said: “I condemn the recent executions in Lhasa of two Tibetans, Mr Lobsang Gyaltsen and Mr Loyak. We respect China’s right to bring those responsible for the violence in Tibet last year to justice. But the UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, and we have consistently raised our concerns about lack of due process in these cases in particular.” Mr. Lewis said that during his visit to the Tibet Autonomous Region in September he had urged the authorities not to carry out the death sentence, and he called on China to review urgently the cases of those who remain under sentence of death for their alleged involvement in last year’s unrest. (http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=News&id=21082898)

An official report on April 8, 2009, stated that Losang Gyaltse [Gyaltsen] had been sentenced to death “for setting fire to two garment shops in downtown Lhasa on March 14 that killed a shop owner Zuo Rencun”, according to a spokesman for the Lhasa Municipal Intermediate People’s Court (Xinhua). In another case, Loyak received the death penalty for allegedly setting fire to a motorcycle dealership in Dechen township in Lhasa’s Taktse (Chinese: Dagze) county on March 15 last year, according to the same article, leading to the deaths of five people.

Lobsang Gyaltsen was in his early twenties and from Lubuk township, according to the Tibetan language service of Radio Free Asia (October 24). The same source said: “His mother’s name is Yudon-la and he has a stepfather. Their living conditions are extremely poor, and they are dependent on food assistance from Lhasa city committee.” Before his execution, the source said, Lobsang Gyaltsen was permitted a visit with his mother. “I have nothing to say, except please take good care of my child and send him to school,” he was quoted as telling her.

The court spokesperson said: “The two defendants [Lobsang Gyaltsen and Loyak] given death penalties had committed extremely serious crimes and have to be executed to assuage the people’s anger. For those defendants who deserve lesser punishments under statutory or discretionary circumstances, they were given lighter punishments according to the law,” he said. (Xinhua, April 8, 2009.)

Often in the People’s Republic of China, death sentences are passed months or even weeks after a suspect has been detained on suspicion of committing a capital crime. In the cases in Lhasa, sentencing took more than a year and may be due to the political sensitivities of the case.

The reports of two other executions have not been officially confirmed. There were earlier official reports of three further death sentences, all imposed with two-year reprieves, according to state media reports published on April 8 and April 21, 2009. Penkyi, who was reportedly also executed according to TCHRD, was one of those Tibetans. Penkyi, of Sakya (Chinese: Sajia) county in Shigatse (Chinese: Rikaze) prefecture, and two other Tibetan women were found guilty of starting a fatal fire in a Lhasa clothing shop that resulted in the deaths of five shop employees. There is no evidence that these young women were granted a fair trial and proper legal access in accordance with China’s own laws. Tibetans have been 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. It was also reported that a Tibetan named Gangstu, who was allegedly involved in the same incident as Loyak, was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve. A fifth Tibetan,Tenzin Phuntsog, was sentenced to death reprieved for two years for setting fire to a garment shop in which the husband and wife owners of the shop were injured and their daughter killed. It is unlikely Tenzin Phuntsog has been executed, following an official spokesman’s statement in the state media when the sentences were announced that the court had been lenient on Tenzin Phuntsog because “he had been put up to the violence,” and had “showed a positive attitude in admitting his crime after he was arrested,” a reference to the Chinese authorities’ assertion that the ‘Dalai clique’ orchestrated the protests. (ICT reports, Two Tibetans sentenced to death in Lhasa and Fifth Tibetan sentenced to death)

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 rare, however, that people given suspended death sentences are actually executed. Those who have been executed committed significant transgressions in prison, such as violence against other prisoners or prison staff.

Radio Free Asia referred to the executions of a third unnamed man from Amdo in eastern Tibet and a woman identified as ‘Nyimo’. This could be a reference to an area of Lhasa called Nyemo where she might be from. TCHRD and the Tibetan political prisoners organization Gu Chu Sum reported the name of the woman who was executed as Penkyi. (RFA, Tibetan Executions Reported) The April 21, 2009 China Daily article reported that a 23-year old female from Nyemo named Penkyi was sentenced to life imprisonment as part of the arson case which resulted in a suspended death sentence for the woman named Penkyi of Sakya county. The same China Daily article also reported that “the court showed leniency on the two Penkyis,” who were accused of leading the arsons, because they “had turned themselves in to police.” (ICT report, Fifth Tibetan sentenced to death)

Until the UK government’s statement on Friday there had been no official confirmation of the executions, which may be indicative of the sensitive political climate following the crackdown imposed after the protests began in March, 2008. According to Radio Free Asia, an official at the Lhasa People’s Intermediate Court referred questions about the executions to a colleague and asked reporters to phone back later, at which time the phone rang unanswered.

The last known case of the execution of a Tibetan was in 2003, when Lobsang Dhondrub was executed for alleged involvement in a bomb blast in Chengdu in April 2002. This was linked to the case of Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a respected religious teacher whose death sentence was commuted to life. On January 26, 2003, the Sichuan High People’s Court rejected Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s appeal against his sentence and the appeal that had apparently been entered for Lobsang Dhondrub. Within hours Lobsang Dhondrub was executed. Some reports suggest he was executed very early in the morning of that day, even before the appeal was formally rejected.

During a ‘Strike Hard’ campaign in 1996 in Tibet, there were official press reports of 29 executions, of which 18 were Tibetans, and all for non-political crimes. During this same campaign, more than 2,200 people were executed across China.

The executions of Lobsang Gyaltsen and Loyak in Lhasa were carried out in the context of a severe crackdown that began last year following the wave of protests that swept across the Tibetan plateau from March 10, 2008. State repression and the hardening of the Chinese government’s position on the Dalai Lama have created deepening tension in Tibet, and over the past year the Chinese government has sought to cover up the torture, disappearances and killings that have taken place across Tibet following the protests and dissent.