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Senior Tibetan Cleric Faces Prison in China

April 27, 2009

The New York Times
April 24, 2009

BEIJING -- Defense lawyers for a revered Tibetan
abbot, the most senior religious figure to be put
on trial after the waves of detentions in Tibetan
regions last year, said Friday that they expected
a verdict and sentence next Tuesday. The case has
caused considerable concern among Tibetans and Chinese human rights lawyers.

The abbot, Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche, 51, was
detained by security forces on May 18, four days
after a protest by more than 80 nuns from the two
convents he leads in the restive area of Ganzi in Sichuan Province.

The nuns’ protest was one of many in Tibetan
regions after ethnic rioting erupted in Lhasa,
the Tibetan capital, in March 2008, prompting a
crackdown from Beijing and waves of detentions.

Prosecutors charged the abbot with weapons
possession, saying the police found a pistol and
about 130 bullets in his living room, according
to one defense lawyer, Jiang Tianyong. The court
also charged the abbot with embezzlement after
prosecutors accused him of trying to illegally
take possession of a home for the elderly that he runs.

The abbot is considered a tulku by Tibetans and
called a living Buddha in Chinese -- an
especially revered figure who is believed to be
the essence of a prominent religious leader.

If convicted on both charges, as is expected, he
could be sentenced to 15 years in prison, Mr. Jiang said.

He said the charges were unfounded and motivated by politics.

"There’s a lack of evidence on the weapons
charge, and the embezzlement charge is
ridiculous,” Mr. Jiang said. “The living Buddha
predicted that the government would arrest him
because some nuns from his convents took to the streets to protest."

Calls to the two courts in Ganzi that are
involved in the case went unanswered Friday.

The Tibetan issue is one of the most intractable
political and security problems for China. Many
Tibetans resent rule by the Chinese; the riots in
Lhasa focused on the Han Chinese, members of the
country’s largest ethnic group.

Mr. Jiang was one of 21 Han lawyers who signed a
petition last year announcing that they would
help defend Tibetans. Government officials met
with the lawyers and told them not to take on any
cases, he said. But he traveled with a colleague,
Li Fangping, from Beijing last week to take on
the case. Both are prominent human rights lawyers.

"We hoped that this kind of issue could be solved
through law, through legal procedures,” Mr. Jiang said.

"This is beneficial to the relationship between
Tibetans and Han Chinese, because they’re
citizens of the People’s Republic of China, and
they’re entitled to be protected by the law."

After the Chinese government sent security forces
across western China to crack down on the
protests last year, the nuns at the two convents
in Ganzi were told to sign papers denouncing the
Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
However, the nuns refused and marched instead,
according to Woeser, a prominent Tibetan blogger
who has written about the case and who follows
the Tibetan tradition of using a single name.

At least a dozen of the nuns have been sentenced
for unknown crimes, and six are still being
detained, Ms. Woeser said in an interview.

Beijing sent thousands of troops into Tibetan
areas this winter and spring to prevent any
protests during the 50th anniversary of a failed
Tibetan uprising against the Chinese.

In recent weeks, there have been a spate of
sentences related to the 2008 uprising.On
Tuesday, a court sentenced three Tibetans
convicted of setting or helping set a deadly fire
during the rioting in Lhasa. One was given a
death sentence with a two-year reprieve, which
can be commuted later. A second was given life in
prison, and a third was given 10 years in prison.
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