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Secrecy in China's trials of Tibetan protestors indicates political verdicts

May 7, 2009

JURIST, May 5, 2009

Sophie Richardson [Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch]:

"The Chinese government's secrecy in handling unrest in Tibet since the
March 2008 protests erupted in Lhasa was highlighted again on April 8,
2009, when a simple dispatch from the official news agency Xinhua
reported that four Tibetans accused of arson in three different
incidents had been sentenced to death. Two of them, Tenzin Phuntsog and
Gangtsu (some Tibetans use a single name), received a two-year reprieve,
which typically means that their sentences will be commuted to a life
term at the end of the two year period.

But the two other, Losang Gyaltse and Loyar, now face the prospect of
imminent execution. And, in keeping with the last year's practices,
almost nothing is known of the circumstances under which they were
tried. We do not know whether they were adequately represented by a
defense counsel of their choice, whether they had an opportunity to
challenge the evidence introduced against them, or whether the defense
could produce their own witnesses during the procedures. Such violations
of basic due process rights are chronic in Tibet.

This secrecy is particularly hard to justify for a number of reasons,
not least that under Chinese law all trials are supposed to open. One
would have expected the presence of domestic or international observers,
not to mention relatives. Yet, absolutely no information has been
forthcoming from the proceedings, leaving many fundamental questions
about these important cases unanswered.

And what about the oft-repeated claim by the Chinese government that the
Dalai Lama "clique" had masterminded the violence in Lhasa? Premier Wen
Jiabao himself had stated at a press conference in March 2008 that China
had "ample evidence" of this. One would have expected the trials to be a
great opportunity to shed some light onto the still opaque set of
circumstances that led to the violence on March 14-15, 2008. If there
had been such a "plan," why has none of that "ample evidence" been
produced in an open court? And why was it that the police withdrew from
Lhasa during key times, effectively permitting the violence to escalate?
We still do not know.

Following a 2006 reform, the Supreme People's Court (SPC) in Beijing has
been reinstated as the ultimate arbiter on all death penalty decisions.
In theory, Losang Gyaltse's and Loyang's death sentences should now be
making their way to the SPC to be vetted. But there is little to be
expected from the review in highly politically sensitive cases, because
the initial verdicts were most likely determined by the Party
authorities through its Political and Legal Committee, that wields
authority over all judicial institutions in China. These authorities are
therefore unlikely to change their minds as a result of the additional
layer of review.

A recent Human Rights Watch report on the aftermath of the 2008 Tibetan
protests, based on extensive analysis of official Chinese accounts and
court documents, concluded that the judicial system was "so highly
politicized as to preclude any possibility of protesters being judged
fairly." The report also showed that by the Chinese government's own
count there had been thousands of arbitrary arrests and more than 100
trials pushed through the judicial system. Almost nothing is known about
these trials, including such basic information as the name of the people
sentenced, the charges under which they were tried, and where they are
serving their sentence.

The government claims that all the Tibetans sentenced, including those
receiving the death penalty, have been tried according to law. If that
is in fact the case, then the Chinese government has little to hide.
Secrecy about the proceedings, on the other hand, suggests that the
government recognizes that these trials are so summary as to be
incapable of withstanding public and international scrutiny."

Opinions expressed in JURIST's Hotline are the sole responsibility of
their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's
editors, staff, or the University of Pittsburgh.
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