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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Expanding crime and punishment in Tibet

July 6, 2010

By Robert Barnett
Korea Times
July 5, 2010

NEW YORK -- China has been widely criticized for
its harsh treatment of almost any form of political dissent in Tibet.

In 2008, for example, a Tibetan named Wangdu, an
AIDS educator in Lhasa, received a life sentence
for sending news about Tibetan protests to
Tibetans abroad. The logic was clear: preserve
what China's leaders call ``stability" and
``harmony" in order to maintain state power.

But two recent events in Tibet, involving the
trials of two leading Tibetans who had not
attacked or criticized the state at all, do not follow this logic.

In the first trial, on June 24, Karma Samdrup,
42, one of the wealthiest Tibetan businessmen in
China, received a 15-year sentence from a court
in Xinjiang for stealing antiques.

Human rights groups suggested the charge was
invented, because the police had dropped the case
for lack of evidence when it was first
investigated 12 years ago, and neither witnesses
nor new evidence were produced in court.

Despite a detailed critique of the prosecution's
case by two Chinese defense lawyers, the
sentence, which had been known privately among
officials for several days, was confirmed.

On July 3, Karma's elder brother, Rinchen
Samdrup, 46, was tried on charges of
``endangering state security." His crime was
failing to register a small environmental group
run by him and his younger brother in their
remote home village of Gonjo, in eastern Tibet.

Having been found guilty -- the conviction rate
in China is around 98 percent, and is even higher
in Tibet, so the verdict was never in doubt -- he
was sentenced to five years in prison.

The younger brother, Chime Namgyal, 38, who is
disabled, has been hospitalized since June 11 for
serious injuries received whilst in custody.

He did not even receive a trial, but was given a
21-month sentence by local officials for the same
offense as Rinchen -- endangering state security
by unofficially organizing litter-collection,
tree-planting, and nature patrols to stop the
hunting of endangered species. Even in China,
such activities are not usually considered threats to the state.

These three cases are doubly inexplicable,
because none of the three brothers has been
accused of actually criticizing China, opposing
the Communist Party, or even talking about
politics. On the contrary, they have been hailed as ideal Tibetan citizens.

Karma had founded and financed a leading Tibetan
environmental organization in 2001, and was named
China's philanthropist of the year in 2006 by
China Central Television (for ``creating harmony
between men and nature"). And, last year, the One
Foundation, a humanitarian fund run by the film
star Jet Li, awarded him one million renminbi for his ``model project."

Rinchen was well regarded, too. His group was
awarded a major environmental prize from Ford
Motor Company in 2006, and in 2008 the Chinese
government described him and his organization as
``an extremely beneficial supplement to the
government's environmental protection work."

This February, China's most important paper, the
People's Daily, published a large photograph of
him receiving the award, together with praise of
his work. (The paper was apparently unaware that
by then he had been in custody for five months.)

Indeed, a book praising the brothers for their
work, Tianzhu (``Heavenly Beads"), was published
in China late last year, to wide acclaim. In
June, for no apparent reason, the book was banned
throughout the country, despite its lack of political content.

So, why is China targeting Tibetans who have no
connection with politics and are regarded as
model citizens? Part of the answer may lie with
corrupt local officials. Rinchen and Chime had
criticized a local police chief for hunting endangered animals.

One of his superiors at the nearby prefectural
headquarters in Chamdo is suspected of having
decided to punish them, as well as two of their
cousins, Sonam Choephel and Rinchen Dorje, who
are also in custody in Tibet for vague or unspecified offenses.

But local officials could not have arranged for
Karma to be tried in far-away Xinjiang, let alone
persuade the central government to ban the
brothers' innocuous book about their love of nature.

Higher-level leaders may have taken up the case
against Karma -- persuading their counterparts in
Xinjiang to resurrect the old antiques case --
because he had used his connections in Beijing to
complain about the treatment of his brothers by officials in Tibet.

This theory has gained credence because the
Communist Party's current leader in the Tibet
Autonomous Region formerly held a powerful position in Xinjiang Province.

If it is true, the case against Karma suggests
that officials stationed in Tibetan areas may be
gaining more power, able to reach out beyond
their jurisdictions to pursue what appear to be
little more than personal grievances. Nor are these the only cases.

Dorje Tashi, the wealthy owner of the Yak, a
leading tourist hotel in Lhasa, is also said to
be languishing in prison on vague political
charges. In Tibet, where for the last 30 years
major Tibetan businessmen had been seen as
natural allies of the state, such developments are unprecedented.

China's central government has the power to rein
in its local chieftains, so its failure to do so
in Tibet is puzzling. If it continues to allow
such cases to go forward, it risks losing even
more credibility among those Tibetans who, like
the three environmentalists, have tried to stay
within the law and avoid politics.

Other Tibetans may conclude that China's
government has relegated governance of their
region to local satraps who have their own interests to pursue.

In an area full of suspicion and antagonism
toward the state, expanding the targets of its
political prosecutions from Tibetan protestors to
environmentalists and from dissident monks to
businessmen risks further undermining China's own
objectives in its most troubled region.

The writer is director of the Modern Tibetan
Studies Program at Columbia University, New York.
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