A Tibetan farmer in Kham, eastern Tibet, has been sentenced to death with two years suspension, and two other Tibetans to life and 16 years imprisonment, for setting fire to a government office as part of a protest in February 2009. The protest occurred almost a year after a wave of protests swept across the Tibetan plateau from Lhasa on March 10, 2008.

The detention of the three Tibetans – Pema Yeshi, Sonam Gonpo and Tsewang Gyatso – from Nyarong (Chinese: Xinlong) county in Sichuan province had been announced in the official Ganzi Daily newspaper on March 18, 2009, but details of the sentences have only just been confirmed by two exile sources in contact with Tibetans in the area.

A Tibetan source in exile who had grown up with the three men in Tibet said: “The three of them are straightforward, good people – not highly educated but respectful. I think that the reason why they did what they did was because of general resentment of the Chinese government. They knew of what happened in Tibet in 2008, and it must have moved them to act.”

The presence of security personnel in Nyarong county has intensified since the 2008 demonstrations, according to the same Tibetan exile sources. Checkpoints along the roads have been set up, requiring anyone entering or leaving the county to show identification. Tibetans planning on visiting neighboring counties are required to register their journey with the local police station. Tibetans in Nyarong are deeply disturbed by the news of the recent sentences.

The Tibetan sources reported that on November 17, 2009, Pema Yeshi, a 28-year old farmer from Thankyi (Chinese: Gongxiao) township in Nyarong county in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture received a death sentence, suspended for two years. It is rare that people given suspended death sentences are actually executed unless they commit significant transgressions in prison. Sonam Gonpo, a 24-year old elementary school cook, received life imprisonment; and Tsewang Gyatso, 32 and also an elementary school cook, received 16 years imprisonment. The families of the three men were notified by government officials of the sentencing only after it had taken place.

The Ganzi Daily reported that the three men were detained at dawn on March 11, 2009, after a ‘criminal investigation’ following the protest incidents on February 28, 2009. In a report published on March 18 (and enclosed below in English translation), the newspaper stated that on February 28, 2009, “criminal elements wrote on buildings along the street where the Tongxiao township government is located and scattered handbills with slogans inciting splitting the nation, and then set fire to the township government office building… seriously threaten[ing] state security and public safety.” The newspaper reported damages related to the office fire totaling over 200,000 yuan [US $29,300]. (http://epaper.gzznews.com/gzrb/20090318/index.htm.)

The Tibetan exile who knew all three in Tibet said: “I heard that the building was set on fire sometime either early in the morning or late at night, because the intention was not to take the lives of people but to show resentment towards the government. People in the area admire these Tibetans for their bravery. In this area, people have heard of the terrible things happening elsewhere in Tibet. They are frightened and angry, but their desire to express their feelings is still strong.”

Pema Yeshi, Sonam Gonpo and Tsewang Gyatso were also involved in a peaceful ‘farming boycott’ and ‘No Losar’ protests, according to the same sources. The farming strike across some areas in eastern Tibet involved farmers refusing to carry out the spring planting. This form of protest originated in Kardze prefecture in Sichuan following the popular boycott of Tibetan New Year (Losar) ceremonies in 2009 to mark the deaths of those killed from March 2008 onwards. (ICT report, Tension in Tibet as Tibetans mark New Year with prayers for the dead) Officials in Kardze and elsewhere sought to force farmers to resume normal farming activity and threatened them with confiscation of their land if they did not comply.

According to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, after the three Tibetans were taken into custody, their whereabouts remained unknown for around five months. The same Tibetan sources state that Pema Yeshi is being held in Dartsedo (Chinese: Kangding), and the other two prisoners in Deyang, north-east of Chengdu.

Although full details of charges against the three are not known, it is likely that Pema Yeshi’s suspended death sentence was linked to Article 115 of the Criminal Law on endangering public security, which states: “Whoever commits arson, breaches a dike, causes explosion, spreads poison or inflicts serious injury or death on people or causes heavy losses of public or private property by other dangerous means, shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 10 years, life imprisonment or death.” Often death sentences are passed months or even weeks after a suspect has been detained on suspicion of committing a capital crime in the PRC.

There is no evidence that Pema Yeshi, Sonam Gonpo and Tsewang Gyatso were granted a fair trial and proper legal access in accordance with China’s own laws. In particular since March, 2008, Tibetans have been denied the right to be represented by the lawyer of their choice due to the highly political nature of many cases, with several lawyers being threatened with disbarment if they attempted to represent detained Tibetans.

Two Tibetans, Lobsang Gyaltsen and Loyak, were executed in Lhasa last October for their alleged roles in the protests and rioting in Lhasa on March 14, 2008 (ICT report, Official confirmation of execution of Tibetans in Lhasa). 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 were the first known executions of Tibetans in connection with the Lhasa riot on March 14, 2008 although others have died following torture in custody.

Tibetan farmer shot and wounded after farming protest

In a separate incident involving a Tibetan from the same township, Thankyi, in Nyarong, a Tibetan man named Penbe was shot by police after helping to organize a ‘farming boycott’ in the area. The incident happened on April 15, 2009, but due to rigorous efforts by the Chinese authorities in preventing information about the situation in Tibet reaching the outside world, has only just been reported.

A Tibetan source said of the farming boycott that: “The farmers know that they will be the ones to suffer if they do this. But this is a way for them to show their unhappiness.” (Times of London, April 11, 2009.)

According to the same Tibetan exile sources with contacts in the area, during one incident in April, 2009, a Tibetan monk started to argue with government officials who came to Thankyi to tell Tibetans to stop the farming boycott. When police attempted to detain the monk, local Tibetans protested, and Penbe also tried to stop the police taking him away. As a result he was shot several times in the legs. Penbe was taken by police to hospital. He is believed to have survived, and is now being held in prison. The charges against him and his current health condition remain unknown.

An English translation of the article about the three sentenced Tibetans in Nyarong follows below:

Ganzi Daily, March 18, 2009, p. 1.

Sentences declared in case of incitement to split the nation and endangering public safety against Baima Yixi [Pema Yeshi], Chongweng Jiangcuo [Tsewang Gyatso], and Silong Gongbu [Sonam Gonpo] from Tongxiao [Tib: Thankyi] township in Xinlong [Tib: Nyarong] county

Ganzi Daily. At dawn on February 28, 2009 in Tongxiao township in Xinlong county, a criminal incident of incitement to split the nation and endangering public safety occurred, where criminal elements wrote on buildings along the street where Tongxiao township government is located and scattered handbills with slogans inciting splitting the nation, and then set fire to the township government office building. All fixtures and items within the office building were destroyed, causing economic losses totaling more than 200,000 yuan [US $29,300].

Following the incident, public security organs immediately launched an investigation, and at dawn on March 11, 2009, detained the criminal suspects Baima Yixi (male, 28 years old, from Lieda village, Tongxiao township, Xinlong county), Chongweng Jiangcuo (male, 32, an elementary school cook from Tongxiao township, Xinlong county), and Silong Gongbu (male, 24, an elementary school cook from Tongxiao county, Xinlong county). The three criminal suspects confessed fully and without reservation to the facts of the crimes of writing slogans inciting splitting the nation, scattering handbills inciting splitting the nation, and setting fire to the township government office building. The criminal actions of the three criminal suspects seriously threatened state security and public safety and violated the “Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China,” and [the three criminal suspects] have been put in criminal detention by public security organs in accordance with the law.