Since February 2009, over 140 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet. At least a further 98 Tibetans, since 2010, have been subjected to punishments because of their alleged association to a self-immolation.
Many acts of self-immolation have been followed by mass gatherings of Tibetans to honour and express solidarity with those who have called for freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama as they set themselves on fire. China’s response to the self-immolations and unrest in Tibet has been to intensifying the military buildup and strengthening the very policies and approaches that are the root cause of the acts, such as aggressive campaigns against loyalty to the Dalai Lama.
With much fear over the erosion of China’s authority, the Government unleashed harsh policies to criminalize the self-immolations leading to retributive actions against families, relatives, or monasteries associated with those who have self-immolated. Above, ICT reports on new restrictions from a 16-point document that targets families, friends, monasteries, and local communities where self-immolations take place. Nearly 90 Tibetans have been sentenced in relation to the self-immolations in Gansu and Qinghai provinces, according to a US State Department report on human rights in Tibet.
On 18 June 2012, Yonten Gyatso, a 37-year old senior Tibetan monk, was sentenced to a seven year prison sentence by Ngaba Intermediate People’s Court, for “sharing pictures of nun Tenzin Wangmo and information related to her self-immolation protest with outsiders” and “sharing information since 2008 about political events in Tibet by attempting to make telephone calls to human rights mechanisms of the UN”, according to local sources.
Yonten Gyatso’s whereabouts were unknown for eight months after he was arbitrarily arrested in October 2011. During his detention in Bhugang Town in Chengdu, he was beaten and tortured to the point where he reportedly considered suicide multiple times to end the torture. He is believed to be serving his sentence at Mianyang Prison, Sichuan Province.
A well respected community leader and educator, Yonten Gyatso ran Tibetan language and culture programs throughout Ngaba through the Khashi Educational Society and spoke on the topics of unity and the teachings of His Holiness Dalai Lama. In 1992, he helped found the Renon Primary School to promote Tibetan language and culture to younger generations.
In January 2013, Lobsang Kunchok, a 40-year old Tibetan monk, was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve (this sentence is normally converted to a life sentences after the reprieve). Lobsang’s 31-year old nephew, Lobsang Tsering, was sentenced to ten years. Both men were charged with “intentional homicide” connected to the self-immolation of eight Tibetans in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba); five of which never took place. Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering have been caught up in a new drive by Chinese authorities to criminalize the self-immolation protests in Tibet, and the severe sentences are the first to be imposed against individuals who have allegedly ‘incited’ or ‘coerced’ Tibetans to self-immolate.
On January 28 2013, Xinhua acknowledged that the two Tibetans were not represented by their own lawyers. Despite an assertion by a judge who told the Global Times that: “authorities obtained sufficient evidence showing it [the alleged crimes] had been instructed by ‘forces from abroad’,” no evidence was presented to justify the sentencing. The court noted that while the two Tibetans were charged with the “intentional homicide” for “inciting and coercing” eight Tibetans to self-immolate, it also found that: “The other five people did not self-immolate, after willfully abandoning their plans or after police intervened.” (Xinhua, January 31, 2013).
On 16 August 2013, Chinese State media (Xinhua) reported that the Intermediate People’s Court in Ngaba sentenced Dolma Kyab, 32, to death for ‘killing his wife and burning her body to make it look as if she had self-immolated.’ Full details of the circumstances of Kunchok Wangmo’s death are not known. The imposition of the death penalty is rare in Tibet and there are concerns that the verdict may have been influenced by political circumstances.
Xinhua reports, “The court found that at 11pm on 11 March, Drolma Gya choked his 29-year-old wife Kunchok Wangmo to death with a scarf in their apartment in Dzoge County following an argument over his drinking.” The Xinhua report also stated that Dolma Kyab “burned the body because he believed an apparent self-immolation would help him cover up the crime, as well as preserve his dignity and that of their daughter.”
The only evidence given about this case is a ‘confession’ by Dolma Kyab. It is known that torture is frequently used to extract confessions in China, and that Tibetan prisoners are often tried secretly behind closed doors without legal counsel of their own choosing.
According to Chinese law, the case must now be reviewed by a higher court. If a first trial by an intermediate people’s court hands down the death penalty, the first appeal is conducted by a High People’s Court and also by the Supreme People’s Court. The higher courts have the power to change the verdict, including to impose a death sentence suspended for two years, which generally means life imprisonment. If the death penalty is upheld without reprieve, the execution is generally carried out shortly afterwards.
An editorial on 3 December 2012 in the Gansu Daily stated that the Ministry of Public Security, Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate had jointly issued ‘Opinion on Handling Cases of Self-Immolation in Tibetan Areas According to Law’, criminalizing various activities associated with self-immolations, including “organizing, plotting, inciting, compelling, luring, instigating, or helping others to commit self-immolation,” each of which may be prosecuted as “intentional homicide.” According to the Opinion, the motive of self-immolators is “generally to split the country,” and the act itself constitutes criminal behavior, as it poses a threat to public safety and public order. The Opinion states that “ringleaders” will be targeted for “major punishment.”
Source: International Campaign for Tibet
Ngawang Tobden, 20 years old, was a student of traditional Tibetan thangka art. He was detained in Lhasa after Chinese security personnel discovered on his cell phone two photos of Tibetan self-immolators along with images of a Tibetan national flag and of “repression” by Chinese security forces on Tibetans, sources said.
Tobden was detained on October 21, 2012, but relatives learned that his sentence was for “subversion” only four months later, sources said citing contacts in the Himalayan region. Tobden was reportedly accused of “subversion, propagating incorrect political messages, and causing disharmony among ethnic minorities.”
“His relatives and family couldn’t see him at all until he was sent to the Toelung Shungpa jail near Lhasa,” Tibetan Yeshe Gyaltsen, who lives near India’s hill town of Dharamsala, told Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service. “The relatives said there weren’t any court proceedings nor were family and relatives informed when he was sentenced,” he said.
According to Gyaltsen, Tobden’s relatives said they saw many other Tibetans from the Tibetan Autonomous Regions in Chamdo and Nagchu prefectures who were serving sentences on unspecified charges at the same facility.
“Owing to this, he was arrested and detained at Lhasa police station for several days and thoroughly interrogated. Afterward he was transferred to the Gutsa detention center and there he was interrogated again [for possession of the photos],” Yeshe Gyaltsen said. “Finally, he was sentenced to two years imprisonment.”
Read and share International Tibet Network‘s latest report, “Flames in Tibet: Five Years of Resistance and Oppression” detailing the self-immolation protests by Tibetans inside Tibet.