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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China: Court Should Reject Charges against Phurbu Tsering

May 3, 2009

Human Rights Watch
April 30, 2009

For Immediate Release
China: Court Should Reject Charges Against Phurbu Tsering
Prosecution of Tibetan Religious Leader Flawed, Politically Motivated

New York, April 30 -- A Chinese court should
reject criminal charges against a Tibetan
religious leader because his rights as a criminal
defendant suffered repeated infringements and
raised the possibility that the charges against
him were unsubstantiated and politically
motivated, Human Rights Watch said today.

The trial itself was unusual in that two
Beijing-based lawyers chosen by the defendant’s
family were permitted to represent Phurbu
Tsering, a positive development that
distinguished it from summary proceedings that
characterize the detention of many Tibetans since the protests of 2008.

Phurbu Tsering was tried on April 21, 2009, for
illegally possessing a weapon and several rounds
of ammunition, as well as illegally occupying the
land on which he runs a small hospice for the
elderly. At his trial, where he was assisted by
Beijing lawyers Li Fangping and Jiang Tianyong,
Phurbu claimed he had been framed by the police
and then coerced into making a false confession.
The court has yet to render its verdict, which
was initially expected on April 28, but has since been indefinitely postponed.

"Phurbu’s case is exceptional because he has had
a chance -- unlike most Tibetans arrested since
protests broke out in March 2008 – to challenge
the case against him in court,” said Sophie
Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human
Rights Watch. “Now the court has the opportunity
to uphold justice and set Phurbu free.”

A senior Tibetan cleric designated as a
"reincarnated lama," Phurbu was the head of the
Pangri nunnery, in Ganzi (Tibetan: Kardze)
prefecture, Sichuan province. His arrest on May
18, 2008, came four days after Buddhist nuns from
his nunnery staged a peaceful demonstration in
reaction to the crackdown that followed
widespread protests across the Tibetan plateau in
March 2008. When the police searched Phurbu’s
house, they found a gun hidden under a sofa in a
room used to receive visitors, as well as rounds
of ammunitions of different types. The unrelated
charges of unlawfully seizing state property were
introduced later by the prosecution, when Phurbu was already in custody.

Phurbu stated in court that, while he was in
detention, police interrogated him continuously
for four days and nights, forcing him to assume
painful physical positions throughout. While
being subjected to this treatment, he was told
that if he did not confess to the weapons charge,
his wife and son would be detained. Despite
Phurbu’s statements to the court, officials did
not inquire into the circumstances of his interrogation.

In addition, Phurbu’s lawyers’ defense statement
raises a number of critical inconsistencies in
the prosecution’s case, ranging from basic facts
about the model of the gun and the type and
quantity of ammunition discovered to the failure
to conduct any investigation about their
provenance or interview a potentially exculpatory
witness. The lawyers also highlighted procedural
violations in their efforts to represent Phurbu,
such as restrictions on the access to the
evidence against their client, including key
depositions, and repeated interference with the
right to visit their client by the detention center authorities.

The lawyers also challenged the accusation that
Phurbu Tsering had illegally obtained the land on
which he operated his charitable hospice,
supported in part by donations from Tibetans and
Chinese followers. Human Rights Watch said that
it was not in a position to evaluate the merits
of the land dispute, but that the timing and the
way this criminal charge was introduced – while
Phurbu was already in detention – appeared
politically motivated. The hospice had been
operating for many years with the authorities’
knowledge, and Phurbu’s lawyers were able to
provide various records of official transactions
between Phurbu and the local authorities
regarding the establishment of the hospice on the
disputed land, none of which challenged the legality of the facility.

Human Rights Watch has documented extensive
restrictions on the ability of suspected Tibetan
protesters to be tried fairly, including the
ability to be represented by a lawyer of one’s
choice, following the intense government
crackdown after the March 2008 protests in
Tibetan areas
). The fact that Phurbu Tsering was granted
access to his chosen defense counsel may indicate
that he was never suspected of having played a
role in the protests. It may also suggest
governmental concern about trying the
highest-ranking Tibetan religious figure known to
have been arrested since the March 2008 protests.
Considered to be a reincarnated lama whose
Chinese title is that of a “living Buddha,” the
authorities may be attempting to avoid triggering
protests in an already-volatile Tibetan area with a massive security presence.

"The Chinese authorities have made a deliberate
decision to give Phurbu a trial on par with
national standards rather than the summary
judicial procedures usually reserved for ordinary
Tibetans who come before a court without the
benefit of a lawyer they chose,” said Richardson.
“But to really build confidence in China’s legal
system, the authorities should ensure that all
defendants have access to competent defense
lawyers who can do their job without interference.”

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on China and Tibet, please visit:

For more information, please contact:

In Hong Kong, Nicholas Bequelin (English, French, Mandarin): +852-8198-1040

In Washington, DC, Sophie Richardson (English,
Mandarin): +1-202-612-4341; or +1-917-721-7473 (mobile)

In London, Brad Adams (English): +44-20-7713-2767; or +44-790-872-8333 (mobile)
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