The Lhasa Intermediate People’s Court in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), has sentenced two Tibetans to death on charges relating to “starting fatal fires”, according to an official report published yesterday. These are the first known death sentences passed against Tibetans in connection with the Lhasa riots on March 14, 2008. Two other Tibetans were sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve and one other was sentenced to life imprisonment in a total of three separate cases of arson, reportedly involving the deaths of seven people, according to the state media. The full Xinhua report, published in English but apparently not yet in Chinese, is included below.

The official report names Losang Gyaltse [Gyaltsen] as being sentenced to death “for setting fire to two garment shops in downtown Lhasa on March 14 that killed a shop owner Zuo Rencun.” In another case, Loyar received the death penalty, Gangtsu was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, and Dawa Sangpo was sentenced to life imprisonment. A defendant called 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.

In reference to the Chinese authorities’ assertion that the ‘Dalai clique’ orchestrated the protests, a spokesman explained 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,” whereas Losang Gyaltsen and Loyar “have to be executed to assuage the people’s anger.”

A similar case allegedly involving the deaths of five people in a fire is reportedly “still under trial,” but the report did not say how many defendants were involved in that trial, nor when a verdict and sentence is expected.

There are serious concerns about the fairness of the procedures and the treatment of the detainees in custody prior to sentencing. While the Xinhua report states that detainees were represented by lawyers, there is evidence in earlier trials of Tibetans following the outbreak of protests last March that the rights of defendants to be represented by the lawyer of their choice was ignored by the judicial authorities, due to the politicized nature of the process. In the immediate wake of the March 2008 protests, several lawyers were threatened with disbarment if they attempted to represent detained Tibetans, according to Human Rights Watch. (See ‘China: Rights Lawyers Face Disbarment Threats: Intimidation Overshadows Reforms to Law on Lawyers,’ May 30, 2008, Human Rights Watch.)

Another report published in March 2009 by Human Rights Watch stated the process of trials and imprisonment in Tibet over the past year “reflect a pattern of systematic political interference with legal and judicial processes in the name of an ideologically-driven ‘anti-separatist campaign’ under the Communist Party leadership. The principle of independence of the judiciary is thoroughly undermined by the leadership’s demand that court and police tailor their actions to political requirements.” (China: Hundreds of Tibetan Detainees and Prisoners Unaccounted For, March 9, 2009).

Chinese court sentences two to death on starting fatal fires in Lhasa riot

Xinhua, April 8, 2009

LHASA, April 8 (Xinhua) — A Chinese court on Wednesday sentenced two people to death after finding them guilty of starting fatal fires in Lhasa riot in March last year, a court spokesman said.

Two others were given death sentences each with a two-year reprieve, and another would face life imprisonment, also on arson charges, said the spokesman with the Lhasa Municipal Intermediate People’s Court.

The five were tried in three separate arson cases, in which altogether seven civilians were killed and five shops torched in Lhasa, capital of southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, according to the court verdicts.

Another arson case is still under trial, in which five civilians were killed and a shop burnt down.

Of those convicted, Losang Gyaltsen got death penalty for setting fire to two garment shops in downtown Lhasa on March 14 that killed a shop owner Zuo Rencun, the court heard.

In another case, Loyar, Gangtsu, and Dawa Sangpo torched a motorcycle dealership in the Deqen Township in Lhasa’s Dagze County on March 15 last year. Five people, including the shop owner Liang Zhiwei, Liang’s wife, son and two employees, were left dead.

Loyar received a death penalty, Gangtsu was given a death sentence with a two-year reprieve, and Dawa Sangpo got life imprisonment, according to the court verdicts.

In the third case, Tenzin Phuntsog was sentenced to death but also with a two-year reprieve. He was convicted of setting fire to a garment shop which spread to a neighboring garment shop in downtown Lhasa on March 14 last year. A shop owner Liu Guobing and his wife were injured and Liu’s daughter was burnt to death, the court heard.

“His crime deserves the death penalty, but judges reached the verdict while taking into consideration that he had been put up to the violence and showed a positive attitude in admitting his crime after he was arrested,” the court spokesman said.

The sentences were made at the first instance trial Wednesday afternoon, he said.

“The three arson cases are among the crimes that led to the worst consequences in the March 14 riot,” he said. “Their crimes incurred great losses to people’s lives and property and severely undermine the social order, security and stability.”

He cited the case of the youngest victim, Liang Zhiwei’s son, who was only eight months old.

He said the judges have followed the criminal policy of “tempering justice with mercy” and “exercising strict and cautious control over the use of death penalty” in handling the cases.

“The two defendants 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.

The spokesman also said the court had given open trials strictly abiding by the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China.

“The court also provided Tibetan interpreters for the defendants,” he said.

“Their lawyers fully voiced their defenses. The litigious rights of the defendants were fully safeguarded and their customs and dignity were respected,” he added.

Death penalty cases in China

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.

A court spokesperson quoted in the report above states that this was the “first instance trial”. Under Chinese law, the verdicts and death sentences will now be subject to mandatory appeal – a “second instance trial” at a High People’s Court – although in China most appeals fail.

Up until 2007, the “second instance trial”, consisting of little more than a closed-door review of documents, was all that was needed for the death penalty in most categories of crime to be approved and carried out immediately. ‘Mobile execution chambers’ – vans fitted with apparatus for administering lethal injections – are available outside courts so convicts can be executed immediately upon being taken from their holding cells. Or alternatively, and generally in more rural areas where space permits, people are taken from detention and shot with a single bullet to the back of the head. This is what happened in 2003 to Lobsang Dhundup, a co-defendant of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, despite assurances to US government officials in China at the time that his case would receive a “lengthy review”. (See: ‘The Execution of Lobsang Dondrub and the Case Against Tenzin Deleg: The Law, the Courts, and the Debate on Legality,’ Congressional-Executive Commission on China, February 10, 2003.)

In the face of mounting domestic and international criticism of the sweeping use of the death penalty in China, a reform was introduced in 2007 whereby all death sentences had to undergo an additional review at the central Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, in an apparent attempt to introduce a degree of consistency and additional restraint to the application of the death penalty.

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 March 14, 2008 riots and the protests across Tibet over the past year, see: ‘A Great Mountain Burned by Fire: China’s Crackdown in Tibet