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Tibetan lama on trial for weapons charge in China

April 22, 2009

By GILLIAN WONG – April 21, 2009

BEIJING (AP) — A respected Tibetan lama went on trial in a Chinese court
Tuesday on weapons charges related to last year's protests and faces a
lengthy prison term if convicted, his lawyer said.

Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche, who headed a nunnery in Ganzi, a predominantly
Tibetan prefecture in Sichuan province, is accused of illegally
possessing weapons, his Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping told The
Associated Press in a phone interview.

The 52-year-old monk could be imprisoned for up to 15 years if found
guilty by the Ganzi Prefecture Intermediate People's Court, Li said,
adding that he was the first senior Buddhist leader to face a serious
charge linked to last year's demonstrations.

The protests that spread across a wide area of western China inhabited
by Tibetans marked the most significant challenge to Chinese rule in
decades.

Prosecutors allege that a pistol and more than 100 bullets and
cartridges were found under a bed in Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche's living
room during a police raid, but the monk has denied the allegation,
saying he was framed, Li said.

"The charge is untenable," Li said. "Police didn't ask him about the
source of the weapons or check for fingerprints."

Li said the monk was forced into making a confession after a police
interrogation that lasted four days and threats that his wife and son
would be detained if he did not comply.

Li said Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche was arrested May 18 last year just days
after more than 80 nuns in the town of Ganzi held a demonstration
against an official campaign to impose "patriotic re-education" on their
nunneries in which they were required to denounce the Dalai Lama. The
lama headed the Pangri nunnery, one of the nunneries involved in the
protest.

The International Campaign for Tibet, an activist group, has described
Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche as a "deeply respected local figure known for
his work in the community" — including the building of a center for the
aged and two clinics — whose detention has aroused deep resentment among
local Tibetans.

The court has yet to set a date for delivering its verdict, Li said.
Calls to the court rang unanswered late Tuesday.

A rugged, deeply Buddhist region filled with monasteries and nunneries,
Ganzi is known for its strong Tibetan identity and has been at the
center of dissent for years. It saw some of the most violent protests
last spring.

In 2002, Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, a senior lama from the same area who
attracted thousands of followers, was sentenced to life in prison for
allegedly promoting Tibetan independence and involvement in bombings
that killed one person.

Earlier Tuesday, state media reported that another Chinese court
sentenced three people to lengthy prison terms over deadly arson attacks
during last year's rioting in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

One suspect, Penkyi, was given the death penalty with a two-year
reprieve for helping to lead attacks on two clothing stores that killed
six people, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Such sentences are is
usually commuted to life in prison.

Another suspect, also named Penkyi, was sentenced to life in prison by
the Lhasa Municipal Intermediate People's Court. A third, Chimed, was
given 10 years in prison. Many Tibetans use just one name.

Last year's violence in Lhasa killed 22 people, according to Chinese
officials. Rioting that broke out on March 14 led to the most sustained
uprising against Chinese rule in decades. State media says more than 950
people have been detained in the ensuing crackdown and dozens of people
sentenced for their part in the protests.

Beijing says the protests were part of a violent campaign by the exiled
Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and his supporters to throw off
Chinese rule in Tibet and sabotage last August's Beijing Olympics. The
Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet fifty years ago amid an uprising against
Chinese rule, has denied the charge and says he seeks only significant
autonomy for Tibet under continued Chinese rule.

Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen contributed to this report.
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