Secrecy in China's trials of Tibetan protestors indicates political verdicts

Sophie Richardson [Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch]: "The Chinese government's secrecy in handling unrest in Tibet since the March 2008 protests erupted in Lhasa was highlighted again on April 8, 2009, when a simple dispatch from the official news agency Xinhua reported that four Tibetans accused of arson in three different incidents had been sentenced to death. Two of them, Tenzin Phuntsog and Gangtsu (some Tibetans use a single name), received a two-year reprieve, which typically means that their sentences will be commuted to a life term at the end of the two year period.

But the two other, Losang Gyaltse and Loyar, now face the prospect of imminent execution. And, in keeping with the last year's practices, almost nothing is known of the circumstances under which they were tried. We do not know whether they were adequately represented by a defense counsel of their choice, whether they had an opportunity to challenge the evidence introduced against them, or whether the defense could produce their own witnesses during the procedures. Such violations of basic due process rights are chronic in Tibet.

This secrecy is particularly hard to justify for a number of reasons, not least that under Chinese law all trials are supposed to be open. One would have expected the presence of domestic or international observers, not to mention relatives. Yet, absolutely no information has been forthcoming from the proceedings, leaving many fundamental questions about these important cases unanswered.

And what about the oft-repeated claim by the Chinese government that the Dalai Lama "clique" had masterminded the violence in Lhasa? Premier Wen Jiabao himself had stated at a press conference in March 2008 that China had "ample evidence" of this. One would have expected the trials to be a great opportunity to shed some light onto the still opaque set of circumstances that led to the violence on March 14-15, 2008. If there had been such a "plan," why has none of that "ample evidence" been produced in an open court? And why was it that the police withdrew from Lhasa during key times, effectively permitting the violence to escalate? We still do not know.

Following a 2006 reform, the Supreme People's Court (SPC) in Beijing has been reinstated as the ultimate arbiter on all death penalty decisions. In theory, Losang Gyaltse's and Loyang's death sentences should now be making their way to the SPC to be vetted. But there is little to be expected from the review in highly politically sensitive cases, because the initial verdicts were most likely determined by the Party authorities through its Political and Legal Committee, that wields authority over all judicial institutions in China. These authorities are therefore unlikely to change their minds as a result of the additional layer of review.

A recent Human Rights Watch report on the aftermath of the 2008 Tibetan protests, based on extensive analysis of official Chinese accounts and court documents, concluded that the judicial system was "so highly politicized as to preclude any possibility of protesters being judged fairly." The report also showed that by the Chinese government's own count there had been thousands of arbitrary arrests and more than 100 trials pushed through the judicial system. Almost nothing is known about these trials, including such basic information as the name of the people sentenced, the charges under which they were tried, and where they are serving their sentence.

The government claims that all the Tibetans sentenced, including those receiving the death penalty, have been tried according to law. If that is in fact the case, then the Chinese government has little to hide. Secrecy about the proceedings, on the other hand, suggests that the government recognizes that these trials are so summary as to be incapable of withstanding public and international scrutiny."

 

About Professional Commentary

Professional Commentary is JURIST's platform for newsmakers, activists and legal experts to comment on national and international legal developments.

Hotline welcomes submissions, inquiries and comments at professionalcommentary@jurist.org.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.