Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan-language advocate detained for two years in eastern Tibet pleaded not guilty in court to inciting separatism, a charge that could lead to 15 years in jail, according to his lawyers. Photo: File

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Dharamshala, India — After over two years in detention China has today sentenced a Tibetan language advocate, to five years in prison on politically motivated charges of ‘inciting separatism’ after he publicly sought to realise his right to Tibetan language education in occupied Tibet.

Tashi Wangchuk, a 33-year old Tibetan language advocate, was detained on 27 January 2016 and his trial took place on 4 January 2018 at Yushu Intermediate People’s Court, in Jyekundo County in the Kham region of Tibet (Ch: Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province). His lawyers, who had limited access to him during his pre-trial detention, reported that he was tortured and suffered extreme inhuman and degrading treatment during the first week of detention.

Wangchuk was initially held for a lengthy period in a ‘tiger chair’ where he was subjected to arduous interrogation and was repeatedly beaten. His interrogators also threatened to harm his family. Due to China’s secrecy around the announcement of trial outcomes, his lawyers were unable to be in court today. Tashi has already spent over two years in Chinese detention despite the fact that he has committed no crime under both international law and that of the Chinese constitution. He is now not due to be released until January 2021.

The Tibetan activist, Wangchuk, heard the verdict in Yushu County in eastern Tibet, his defence lawyers, Mr Liang Xiaojun and Mr Lin Qilei, said by telephone. Tashi had warned that in Yushu and across many historically Tibetan areas in occupied Tibet, the Tibetan language was threatened by the Chinese government policies to make Mandarin Chinese the language of schooling and government.

Wangchuk, was arrested in early 2016, two months after he was featured in a New York Times video and article about Tibetan language education. He stood trial in January this year, charged with "inciting separatism" for comments he had made to The New York Times. His prison term will start from the time of his arrest, meaning that he will be due for release in early 2021, his lawyers said.

"Tashi already told us before the verdict that he wanted to appeal if he was found guilty," Mr Lin said. The two lawyers were not at the hearing in the remote town, but said Tashi's family told them of the verdict. "Just two members of his family were allowed in to hear the verdict," Mr Liang, the other lawyer, said. "At the hearing, Tashi was asked if he understood the verdict. He said, 'Understood,' but didn't say much more."

The guilty verdict came as no surprise. China's Communist Party-controlled courts rarely find defendants in criminal trials innocent, and virtually never do so in politically charged cases like this. But human rights organisations and advocates of Tibetan self-determination promptly denounced the verdict as a sign of the Chinese government's growing intolerance of critics of its ethnic policies, even relatively mild ones like Tashi.

"He has been criminalised for shedding light on China's failure to protect the basic human right to education and for taking entirely lawful steps to press for Tibetan language education," Mr Tenzin Jigdal of the International Tibet Network, a coalition of groups supporting Tibetan self-determination, said in an e-mail.

The Chinese Communist Party for decades maintained policies intended to keep ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs, under political control while giving them some space to preserve their own languages and cultures. But under President Xi Jinping, the totalitarian Communist regime leader who came to power in 2012, China has adopted more assimilationist policies, designed to absorb these minorities into the fold of one Chinese nation. At his trial in January, Tashi, speaking in Chinese, rejected the idea that his efforts to rejuvenate the Tibetan language were a crime.

Wangchuk has said that he does not advocate independence for Tibet, but wants the rights for ethnic minorities that are promised by Chinese law, including the right to use their own language. After his trial, six experts advising the United Nations on rights said, "We condemn the continued detention of Mr Wangchuk and the criminalisation of his freedom of expression." They added: "Free exchange of views about state policies, including criticism against policies and actions that appear to have a negative impact on the lives of people, need to be protected."

Tashi Wangchuk’s detention came after he featured in a New York Times article and video report about his journey to Beijing in May 2015, to file a formal complaint against Chinese officials for failing to support Tibetans’ right to Tibetan language education. Despite the fact that he explicitly stated in the report that he was not calling for Tibetan independence, Tashi Wangchuk was arrested and charged with the highly politically motivated ‘offence’ of “inciting separatism”, a charge that "criminalize(s) the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and his defense of cultural rights", according to UN experts.

Tashi Wangchuk is a high profile political prisoner whose case has been raised by multiple governments and independent human rights experts. In March 2018 six UN human rights experts expressed serious concern over the ruling by a Chinese court to uphold charges of “incitement to separatism” and called for all charges levelled against Tashi Wangchuk to be dropped. In January 2018, government delegations from the UK, EU, US, Germany and Canada attempted to attend the trial but were all denied access. Court officials also refused to allow a New York Times reporter into the trial, despite several requests.

“Tashi Wangchuk’s sentence is a complete outrage and his trial a travesty of justice,” said Tenzin Jigdal, International Tibet Network. “He has already lost over 2 years of liberty and now won’t be free until January 2021 because he has been criminalised for shedding light on China’s failure to protect the basic human right to education and for taking entirely lawful steps to press for Tibetan language education. We urge governments to make strong, urgent representations to China, calling for Tashi Wangchuk’s immediate and unconditional release.”

“The harshness of this sentence makes it blatantly clear that China has no respect whatsoever for the rule of law. Tashi Wangchuk is an innocent man and his actions to date have not infringed Chinese criminal law, let alone amounted to an internationally recognisable criminal offence,” said Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren, Director, Free Tibet. “In condemning him to five years in prison, China is sending a message to those under their rule, and to the international community, that they do not care about the rule of law, justice or international standards - they have made it clear that they intend to clamp down on anyone who says or does anything they don't like.”

“What we see from today’s trial outcome is the true face of China’s racist policies against Tibetans. It doesn’t matter to China if you play by the rules - as long as you’re Tibetan, you can be framed as a “separatist” and detained and tortured for advocating for something as basic as language rights,” said Dorjee Tseten, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet.

“Tashi Wangchuk is the victim of a politically motivated prosecution. Today's sentence demonstrates the Chinese authorities ruthless attempts to quash all forms of peaceful dissent - even if it entails flouting their own laws in the process," said Gloria Montgomery, Head of Advocacy and Campaigns, Tibet Society. "It is utterly shameful that Tashi Wangchuk is forced to spend a further two years and 8 months behind bars simply for calling for the rights of Tibetans to be educated in their native tongue."

“Tashi Wangchuk has shown incredible courage in his battle to progress the fundamental rights of the Tibetan people,” said Mattias Bjornerstedt, Swedish Tibet Committee “China has demonstrated today just how much it regards such courage as a threat, by imposing a long, politically-charged sentence on an innocent man.”

“Tibetans and campaigners are outraged at China’s cowardly sentencing of a Tibetan acting entirely within the Chinese Constitution,” added Kyinzom Dhongdue, Executive Director, Australia Tibet Council. “We will continue to press at the highest levels for governments to call on China to overturn this sentence. Tashi has committed no crime and his imprisonment is a perversion of international law.”

Wangchuk was awarded the International Tibet Network’s ‘Tenzin Delek Rinpoche Medal of Courage’ in July 2017; an annual award given to Tibetan human rights defenders who show deep commitment to enhancing the freedom and rights of the Tibetan people at great personal risk.

Communist China began running Tibet after the military invasion of Tibet in 1949, assuring that freedom of Tibetan people would be respected. But Tibetans say the dictatorship government led by Mao— known as one of the most deadly mass killings of human history, went back on his word, forcing His Holiness the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet in 1959, destroying more than 6000 monasteries and temples and killing over 1.2 million Tibetans, out of a total of 6 million. Since then, Tibetans have launched an international campaign against the "occupying" China's authoritarian state that continues to face criticism for human rights violations in suppressing the people of Tibet.