Los Angeles Times
January 27, 2005
BEIJING — A Chinese court commuted the death sentence imposed on a Tibetan monk to life imprisonment, the government announced Wednesday, in a case closely watched by human rights groups.
Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche was convicted in 2002 of a series of bombings in an area of southwestern China near Tibet and given a death sentence that was suspended for two years.
Activists have argued that the case was trumped up, citing a lack of evidence or proper legal procedures and the improbability that Tenzin Deleg would do such a thing given his calling and philosophy.
"Seeing China sentence a Tibetan to death is not new," said Tsering Jampa, Amsterdam-based executive director of the International Campaign for Tibet. "What really shocked us, though, was that a Buddhist leader would be charged with a bombing.
"For a Buddhist, this just can't be true, and showed us the magnitude of their control and repression."
Activists said they believed that Beijing had opted for a more lenient sentence in part because of pressure from overseas governments, human rights groups and other foreigners who brought attention to the case.
The monk's imprisonment and harsh sentence were the subject of international focus in part because he was seen as a new kind of Tibetan activist. He didn't directly challenge China's authority, call for independence or push for pluralism. Rather, he sought to exert pressure from the bottom up, spurring calls for environmental awareness, education reform and respect for Tibetan culture and tradition.
"I think a lot of people hoped there was space there to operate in a politically nonconfrontational way," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "Yet he still crossed some arbitrary, unknown line."
Lobsang Tenpa, a Buddhist monk who worked and studied with Tenzin Deleg during the 1980s, declared the case a sham, saying the monk was a peaceful man and a follower of the Dalai Lama who would never resort to violence.
"In China, if someone committed such a thing, they would show the proof," Lobsang Tenpa said. "They have no proof. And given the conditions, life in a Chinese prison can amount to a death sentence anyways."
China imposed control over Tibet when its troops entered the region in 1950. The Dalai Lama, Tibetans' spiritual leader, fled nine years later after a failed uprising and settled in India.
China announced through state media the reduced sentence issued by the Higher People's Court of Sichuan province.
"The court commuted the death penalty to a life term because he did not intentionally violate the relevant legal specifications again" during his two years in prison after the original death sentence was put on hold, the official New China News Agency said.
It's unclear whether Tenzin Deleg's original arrest order was engineered by local officials threatened by his activism, which was increasingly butting up against local development plans, or whether his growing popularity among Tibetans attracted the ire of Beijing, which then handed down the orders.
Either way, activists say, his arrest was meant to discourage those calling for an autonomous Tibet, and it appears to have worked. Beijing's tight grip on its Tibetan population has blunted activism recently among those opposed to its rule. Its effort to encourage more Han Chinese migration into Tibet and a planned direct railroad link into the Tibetan plateau within the next couple of years have successfully crowded out ancient traditions. And China's refusal to deal with the Dalai Lama or open high-level negotiations has further blunted the movement's momentum.
Some analysts believe that Beijing plans to put off indefinitely direct talks with the Dalai Lama, 69, in hopes the movement will lose focus after its spiritual and temporal leader dies.
Several others were arrested, questioned or detained with Tenzin Deleg in early April 2002, including a close colleague and fellow Tibetan monk, Tashi Phuntsog.
This month, Tashi Phuntsog was released from jail after serving almost three years of a seven-year sentence.
Although Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that it welcomed the release, it added that Tashi Phuntsog entered the prison healthy and was released "a broken man" unable to walk or speak clearly.
Activists said the Chinese government needed to explain how someone under its supervision could deteriorate so dramatically. Prisoners in China are typically required to pay their own medical costs for any problems sustained while behind bars.
On Wednesday, the China Daily reported that 60 Beijing municipal officials had been charged with abuse of power, including torture, but provincial officials far from the capital generally faced less scrutiny.
Analysts said recent torture scandals in the United States and Britain involving prisoners held in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, made it more difficult to criticize China's behavior.
"As a Tibetan, I am against injustice by China, while as a human being, I am against injustice anywhere," Tsering Jampa said. "China is doing what it shouldn't do, violating universal human rights, but we also can't afford to adopt a double standard."