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Australian group: No word from Tibetan staffer

December 23, 2008

BEIJING (AP) — An Australian medical group working to stop the spread of HIV in Tibet said Monday it had not heard from one of its staffers there since deadly riots broke out in March.
A recent Chinese media report said Wangdu, a project officer for the Burnet Institute's Center for International Health, had been sentenced to life in prison for spying and instigating the riots. But the institute said it had no information other than the media report.
"We have not seen Wangdu since the events in March," said Chris Hagarty, a program manager for the Melbourne-based institute. "Burnet continues to try to do its work in HIV prevention in Tibet. We have been in touch with Wangdu's family and are trying to support them."
The Tibetan capital of Lhasa erupted in rioting in March that targeted Chinese shops and businesses. China detained more than 1,000 people in the aftermath of the violence that the official Xinhua News Agency said left 22 people dead.
Xinhua said 202 cases went to trial, but information on the trials has been scarce. Last month, the agency said 55 people had been sentenced in connection with the riots.
Beijing says the protests, the largest uprising against Chinese rule in nearly 50 years, were planned by the Dalai Lama and his supporters inside Tibet to overthrow Chinese rule in Tibet and sabotage the Beijing Olympics. The Dalai Lama has denied involvement in the violence.
Many Tibetans say Tibet was an independent nation before Communist troops invaded in 1950, while Beijing says the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries.
The Burnet Institute has been in Tibet since 1999, engaging in HIV education among vulnerable groups such as workers in bars and brothels.
The Lhasa Evening News reported last month that Wangdu — who like many Tibetans uses only one name — had been sentenced along with seven others for endangering national security. The newspaper said he passed intelligence on China's national security back to Tibetans in exile along with another defendant, among other crimes.
The Lhasa propaganda department of the Communist Party and court offices would not comment on the case.
China has long been wary of nongovernmental organizations, fearing they might be acting as agents for foreign governments or encouraging defiance of the Communist Party. Groups working with Tibetans have to be careful to maintain a nonpolitical stance for fear of being evicted from the region, where China restricted access by foreigners for months after the protests.
The Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet criticized the recent prison sentences in a statement Monday.
"The sentences are unprecedented in their severity for Tibetans accused of passing on information to people outside Tibet," it said.
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