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Tibetans receive harsh prison sentences for online anti-fur campaign

September 22, 2014

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, September 18, 2014 - The TCHRD translated a copy (below) of the verdict of Jamyang Wangtso, a 32-year old monk from Wuran Village, and Namgyal Wangchuk, a 43-year old monk from Wuran Village. (The verdict was translated from a Chinese government website and can be accessed via the link provided at the end of this article).

Due to the difficulty of getting information out of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), not much is known about the circumstance of Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk’s case beyond what is in the verdict. They received long prison sentences for adding text to a photo that they shared with 15 people on WeChat, a popular instant messaging service. The photo was of two people wearing fur chupas. The additional text was designed to shame the people in the photos. The number of Tibetans wearing animal fur chupas has greatly decreased since 2006 when Tibetans burned fur clothing to protect the endangered wildlife in Tibet after the Dalai Lama issued a public call against using animal fur and skin. The pictures were shared with other WeChat groups and sparked the “2. 02 Incident.” There is no record in either English or Chinese of what happened during the “2. 02 Incident.”

The verdict demonstrates how broad Chinese laws can be applied to criminalize all conduct and, thereby, justify the arrest and persecution of people “according to the law.” This is particularly evident because of the lack of analysis or explanation in the verdict, which asserted that a large amount of petitioning and an unexplained incident, demonstrates the broad scope of the law and the arbitrary nature of the punishment.

Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk were convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” in violation of Article 5(1) of the “Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on Several Issues Concerning the Specific Application of the Law in the Handling of Defamation through Information Networks and Other Criminal Cases” (hereinafter “SPC And SPP Interpretation On Internet Speech Crimes”). The SPC And SPP Interpretation On Internet Speech Crimes states that violations of Article 293(2) of the Criminal Code applies to the use of information networks. Namgyal Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in prison. Jamyang Wangtso was sentenced to seven years in prison. It is unclear from the verdict why Jamyang Wangtso received a sentence beyond the maximum five years permitted by Article 293 of the criminal code.

After identifying the accused, the court summarized the prosecution’s case against Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk. The court then listed the evidence supporting the prosecution’s case and adopted the theory of the case and sentence recommended by the prosecution. The prosecution asserted, and the court accepted, that Jamyang Wangtso, after receiving photos of Wangtse and Sonam Tsewang wearing leopard fur chupas and added the text, “The meat-stealer of Chakzamkha Monastery, the scum of the Tibetan community, I am the jackass” and later added text identifying the people in the photo by name. The next day he added a text saying, “We’re the scum” to the picture. At the same time, Namgyal Wangchuk also received the photos and made a collage with four photos and added the text, “Good environment needs trees, and trees need wild animals for company. Please care for them with compassion, don’t kill them brutally for meat and fur.” All of the pictures were forwarded to the “Family Reunion” WeChat group that had 15 members. How the pictures spread beyond the “Family Reunion” group is unclear. The verdict claimed that “the members of the group forwarded the picture to many different WeChat groups,” “members of the group found out later that the picture had been forwarded widely among the WeChat groups,” and that Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk had forwarded the pictures to other groups. Without explanation the court determined that Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk had created the pictures and forwarded them massively. The court never named any people or groups who received the picture other than the “Family Reunion” WeChat group and never stated whether anyone else was involved in forwarding the pictures.

After looking at what Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk did, the court looked at the consequences. The first consequence that the court pointed to was “a large amount of petitioning” by the victims. The second is the “2. 02 Incident.” There is no explanation for how or why these actions fall within the scope of Art. 293(2) of the criminal code, which criminalizes undermining public order. The implication that the victim’s complaint about the pictures to government officials through petitioning, undermines social order is remarkable. It appears to criminalize otherwise lawful conduct simply because somebody complained. The claim that the “2. 02 Incident” undermined public order would be a more plausible grounds for conviction. However, without any information on what happened during the 2. 02 incident or how the picture caused the incident, it is difficult to understand or follow the court’s reasoning or conclusions. In the end, the conviction rests upon the court accepting without analysis or explanation the Riwoche County Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs’s assertion that public order was disrupted.

The context behind the law the court applies is more important than the court’s hasty reasoning. Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk were sentenced under an interpretation of Art. 293(2) of the criminal code that made undermining public order by cursing other people through the internet illegal. Frequently, this crime is referred to as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” The court’s implication that the victim’s frequent petitioning undermined public order demonstrated how broadly this law can be interpreted. The law is frequently used to target human rights activist, including Cao Shunli, who died earlier this year because of her treatment in prison. In practice, the “picking quarrels and provoking trouble law” and the interpretation of it applying it to internet communications criminalizes almost all conduct. It then enables the selective enforcement of the law to target people the government wants to send to prison.

Not much is known about Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk or why they specifically were targeted. However, the picture they shared touched on a politically sensitive issue for the Chinese government. At the Kalachakra Empowerment Ceremony in 2006, the Dalai Lama called on Tibetans to stop using animal skins as a means of preserving the environment. When Tibetans returned to Tibet they burned their fur clothing and stopped wearing fur clothing, like the leopard chupa featured in the pictures. Shortly after the Tibetans began burning and boycotting fur clothing the Wildlife Protection Society of India noticed a drop in the price for fur products from Tibet as the demand decreased.

The Chinese government, who was already arresting people, including Jigme Gyatso, as they returned from Kalachakra ceremony, suspected the people were colluding with the Dalai Lama. As a result, the police stopped a burning of furs at a monastery and arrested eight people. This context may have shaped how the local government viewed Jamyang Wangtso and Namgyal Wangchuk’s naming and shaming of Tibetans who still wear fur. If the only reason for their conviction was that they exposed people who were wearing fur clothing, then the irony of the conviction cannot be missed. The convictions came shortly before the WTO rejected the PRC’s misleading argument that it was limiting the export of rare earth minerals for environmental reasons and to prevent illegal mining. This means that while the PRC was claiming to protect the environment before the WTO, it sentenced two people to prison for trying to protect the environment in Tibet and discourage poaching.

The full English language translation of the court’s verdict as it appeared on the official Chinese website, can be accessed here:

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