Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetans Fear a Broader Crackdown

June 25, 2010

Andrew Jacobs
The New York Times
June 24, 2010

Karma Samdrup and his two younger brothers were
the kind of Tibetans who put the Chinese
Communist Party at ease. Vaunted
environmentalists, they were pillars of their
community who steered clear of politics. Even
better, Mr. Samdrup had become a rich
philanthropist and planned to donate part of his
immense Tibetan art collection to a state-run museum.

This week, however, Mr. Samdrup, 42, frail and
gaunt after six months in police custody, was
marched into a courtroom to face accusations of
"tomb robbing," a charge that had been originally
dropped 12 years ago by the police.

His real crime, say friends and relatives, was
trying to save his brothers from labor camp and
torture -- their punishment for accusing a local
police chief of hunting protected animals in a Tibetan nature preserve.

Exile groups and rights advocates say the
prosecution of Mr. Samdrup and his brothers is
part of a broader assault on prominent Tibetans
around China, a campaign that has sent a chill
through a community that once thought itself
immune to the heavy hand of Beijing.

Their cases might have gone unnoticed outside
Tibet if it were not for the stature of Mr.
Samdrup, a darling of the official media whose
organization has won grants from Ford Motor,
Friends of the Earth and a foundation run by the film star Jet Li.

Those who are following Mr. Samdrup’s predicament
said the authorities were simply trying to
silence him. "Even by Chinese legal standards,
the prosecution’s case is thin at best," said
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights
Watch in Hong Kong. "Experience tells us the outcome has already been decided."

Since rioting two years ago convulsed Tibetan
areas of China, rights groups say scores of
artists, intellectuals, students and
businesspeople have been detained and sentenced
to prison on charges of subverting state power or
seeking to "split" Tibet from China.

They include Tashi Dhondup, a young folk singer
who was sent to a labor camp for a song titled
"Torture Without a Trace," and Kunchok Tsephel, a
government-employed environmentalist who was
given a 15-year term for "disclosing state
secrets" after he wrote about the riots on his Web site.

Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for
Tibet said the recent arrests of about 50 poets,
bloggers and songwriters represented the most
concerted attack on the educated and artistic
elite since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

"It appears that almost any expression of Tibetan
identity can be categorized as separatist or
reactionary," she said in an interview from
London. "These are not angry monks raising their
fists in protest but people working within the
system who are engaged in work that’s essential for a healthy civil society."

Among the more prominent people arrested is
Tragyal, an editor at a state-run publishing
house in Qinghai Province whose whereabouts have
been unclear since April, not long after his
latest book came out with contents decidedly
unflattering to the Chinese government. The book,
"The Line Between Sky and Earth," was a marked
departure for Tragyal, 47, more commonly known by
the pen name Shogdung, who was previously derided
by many Tibetans for being "an official intellectual."

But like many moderate Tibetans, especially those
in the more gently administered provinces east of
Tibet, he was dismayed by the crackdown that
followed the 2008 unrest and included such
sentiments in his book. In one passage, he
describes Tibet as "a terrifying battleground,"
adding: "At the junctions of monasteries and
villages, soldiers parade. Such places are full of spies. It’s so frightening."

His daughter, Yeshi Tsomo, said the family had
been unsure of his whereabouts since the police
took him from their home. "We’ve been to the
detention center more than 20 times, but we have
never been allowed in," she said.

Those who study Beijing’s Tibet policy say the
authorities appear to have extended their
deep-seated suspicions to the Tibetan educated
and well-to-do, a tactic some say could
radicalize a segment of the population that had
come to accept the imperfections of Chinese rule.

"For the first time, we’re seeing the government
attack a group of people who previously had
nothing to do with politics," said Robbie
Barnett, director of the modern Tibetan studies
program at Columbia University. "These are
cultural products of the Communist Party, people
who were brought up by the system."

In some cases, Mr. Barnett and others say, the
crackdown has prompted formerly risk-averse
Tibetans to challenge the status quo through books, blog posts and poems.

Karma Samdrup was in many ways the idealized
Tibetan. Fluent in Mandarin but devoted to his
cultural identity, he is the subject of two
Chinese-language books that lionized his role as
the founder of a state-backed environmental organization in Qinghai Province.

"He’s incredibly generous, lavishing money on
charitable causes," said Tsering Woeser, a
Tibetan blogger who has known him for a decade.

Mr. Samdrup was also a scrappy entrepreneur who
made a fortune trading ornamental beads and
caterpillar fungus, a parasite highly valued by
traditional Chinese medicine. His collection of
art and relics, 20 years in the making, is said
to be among the most extensive in private hands.

His troubles began when his two younger brothers,
Rinchen Samdrup and Jigme Namgyal, took on a
police official in Chamdo Prefecture whom they
accused of leading a hunting party into a nature
preserve. The brothers, who had started their own
environmental group, tried to bring attention to
their accusations of illegal hunting and last August found themselves in jail.

Relatives say Mr. Namgyal was tortured and then
sentenced to 21 months at a labor camp for
"harming national security." Rinchen Samdrup, who
has also been lauded by the Chinese media in the
past, is still awaiting trial on several charges,
including having set up the environmental group illegally.

By jumping to his brothers’ defense, Karma
Samdrup apparently angered some powerful people.
In January, he was arrested far from home in
Sichuan Province and taken to a small city in the
far western region of Xinjiang, where in 1998 he
was accused of buying artifacts from a looted
tomb. According to his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, those
charges were dropped after the police realized
that he had a license to buy and sell cultural relics.

In a sign that Mr. Samdrup’s case has reached the
highest echelons of power, the two books about
him were recently banned by government censors in
Beijing.Mr. Pu says the legal process against his
client has been flawed. He was not allowed to see
Mr. Samdrup for six months, and it was only on
the eve of the trial that the two were allowed to
meet. Their entire 30-minute exchange, he said,
was videotaped by the police, making a frank exchange nearly impossible.

During the hearing on Tuesday, according to the
lawyer, Mr. Samdrup pleaded not guilty and told
the court his interrogation had been accompanied
by daily beatings from the police and fellow
prisoners. He also said he was drugged with a
substance that made his eyes and ears bleed, all
part of an effort to force him to sign a
confession. His wife estimates he lost at least 40 pounds in custody.

Although the trial is closed to the public, Ms.
Woeser said many Tibetans were nervously awaiting
news of the proceedings, which continued Wednesday.

"People are very angry, but they are also
afraid," she said. "The feeling is that if
someone as influential as Karma can be taken down, none of us is safe."
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank