x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Life term for Tibet activist condemned

Severity of the sentences show China's attempts to block information on the situation in disputed mountainous region.

BEIJING // A life sentence given to a former Tibetan monk alleged to have taken part in protests this year was an "injustice", according to associates. Wangdu, 41, who had been a HIV/Aids project officer with the Burnet Institute, a leading Australian medical non-governmental organisation, disappeared in Lhasa on March 14 when protests broke out in the Tibetan capital. His family had no news of him until Nov 8, when the Lhasa Evening News carried a lengthy article detailing his conviction for several alleged crimes. The sentencing last month only became known outside China last week after English translations of the article appeared on the internet. Wangdu, who like many Tibetans uses only one name, was charged with passing information regarding the protest to the outside world. Six other Tibetans, who were accused of conspiring with him, received sentences of between 10 years and 15 years. More than 1,000 Tibetans were arrested during the protests; several hundred remain in custody. The court said Wangdu had received his assignments from the "Public Security Department" of the "Dalai clique", a term often used by China's communist government to refer to the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India. A spokesman of the Lhasa City Intermediate People's Court was quoted as saying in the Lhasa Evening News the case "fully proved" that the trouble that broke out this year in Tibetan areas around the country "was well planned by the Dalai clique and it's 'independence' separatist forces, and deliberately created after they had colluded with 'Tibetan independence elements' within Tibet in a well-organised and premeditated manner." The statement underlines the Chinese government's claim that the Dalai Lama was responsible for the March protests. However, the Tibetan spiritual leader has denied repeatedly that he was involved in the incident. Sources in Tibet close to Wangdu deny he was involved in any type of espionage. "They always say it's this or that organisation," said a source, "but they have no real evidence." He said Wangdu was not involved in the protests. "He's a terribly good person and not an activist." "This is an injustice," said Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer who lives in Beijing. "They just wanted to find a scapegoat." The International Campaign for Tibet said the terms of imprisonment exceeded other sentences imposed on Tibetans accused of communicating information to the outside world. Norzin Wangmo, a Tibetan female cadre, was recently given a five-year sentence for telephoning a friend about the situation in Tibet. "The sentences are unprecedented in their severity for Tibetans accused of passing on information to people outside Tibet," said a statement released by the International Campaign for Tibet. "This new development indicates a harder line approach to blocking news on the current crackdown in Tibet, and also appears to represent a challenge to NGOs." Woeser said Wangdu may only have been guilty of exchanging news of the disturbance with friends via the internet, which she described as "quite normal". "Everyone downloads news about Tibet," she said. Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, said many Tibetans circulated copies of CDs about the Dalai Lama and sent out information about events in Lhasa, "usually in a few coded words in an e-mail or a letter". "It's very likely that the 'espionage' which they are accused of was nothing more than this," he said. "Certainly it's very odd indeed that the newspaper article does not make any mention at all of any kind of information or activities by any of these people that could be considered espionage-related rather than normal news, or that could be considered to be planning protests. "The silence on the details is very troubling and suggests that all that was involved here was low-level news-sharing. We should, I think, assume that to have been the case until it is proved otherwise." Woeser said she believed that Wangdu was singled out because of his prison background. First arrested during protests in 1989, he was initially given a four-year sentence that was later extended to eight years. When he got out, he was not allowed to go back to his monastery because of a government law that prohibits monks from returning to their monasteries after serving a prison sentence. Woeser also points to his job as a HIV/Aids worker and his contacts with foreigners and Tibetans living overseas, which she said also made him suspect in the eyes of the government. A spokesperson for the Australian Embassy in Beijing said she had no information about the case, and the Burnet Institute did not return several calls requesting information. The Associated Press, however, quoted a representative of the Burnet Institute as saying the organisation had had no word of Wangdu since he disappeared in March, but that it was attempting to assist the family. Wangdu's wife is unemployed and has two children, a boy and girl 10 and 12. pmooney@thenational.ae