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China: Court Should Reject Charges Against Phurbu Tsering

Prosecution of Tibetan Religious Leader Flawed, Politically Motivated


A Chinese court should reject criminal charges against a Tibetan religious leader because his rights as a criminal defendant suffered repeated infringements and raised the possibility that the charges against him were unsubstantiated and politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said today.

The trial itself was unusual in that two Beijing-based lawyers chosen by the defendant's family were permitted to represent Phurbu Tsering, a positive development that distinguished it from summary proceedings that characterize the detention of many Tibetans since the protests of 2008.

Phurbu Tsering was tried on April 21, 2009, for illegally possessing a weapon and several rounds of ammunition, as well as illegally occupying the land on which he runs a small hospice for the elderly. At his trial, where he was assisted by Beijing lawyers Li Fangping and Jiang Tianyong, Phurbu claimed he had been framed by the police and then coerced into making a false confession. The court has yet to render its verdict, which was initially expected on April 28, but has since been indefinitely postponed.

"Phurbu's case is exceptional because he has had a chance - unlike most Tibetans arrested since protests broke out in March 2008 - to challenge the case against him in court," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Now the court has the opportunity to uphold justice and set Phurbu free."

A senior Tibetan cleric designated as a "reincarnated lama," Phurbu was the head of the Pangri nunnery, in Ganzi (Tibetan: Kardze) prefecture, Sichuan province. His arrest on May 18, 2008, came four days after Buddhist nuns from his nunnery staged a peaceful demonstration in reaction to the crackdown that followed widespread protests across the Tibetan plateau in March 2008. When the police searched Phurbu's house, they found a gun hidden under a sofa in a room used to receive visitors, as well as rounds of ammunitions of different types. The unrelated charges of unlawfully seizing state property were introduced later by the prosecution, when Phurbu was already in custody.

Phurbu stated in court that, while he was in detention, police interrogated him continuously for four days and nights, forcing him to assume painful physical positions throughout. While being subjected to this treatment, he was told that if he did not confess to the weapons charge, his wife and son would be detained. Despite Phurbu's statements to the court, officials did not inquire into the circumstances of his interrogation.

In addition, Phurbu's lawyers' defense statement raises a number of critical inconsistencies in the prosecution's case, ranging from basic facts about the model of the gun and the type and quantity of ammunition discovered to the failure to conduct any investigation about their provenance or interview a potentially exculpatory witness. The lawyers also highlighted procedural violations in their efforts to represent Phurbu, such as restrictions on the access to the evidence against their client, including key depositions, and repeated interference with the right to visit their client by the detention center authorities.

The lawyers also challenged the accusation that Phurbu Tsering had illegally obtained the land on which he operated his charitable hospice, supported in part by donations from Tibetans and Chinese followers. Human Rights Watch said that it was not in a position to evaluate the merits of the land dispute, but that the timing and the way this criminal charge was introduced - while Phurbu was already in detention - appeared politically motivated. The hospice had been operating for many years with the authorities' knowledge, and Phurbu's lawyers were able to provide various records of official transactions between Phurbu and the local authorities regarding the establishment of the hospice on the disputed land, none of which challenged the legality of the facility.

Human Rights Watch has documented extensive restrictions on the ability of suspected Tibetan protesters to be tried fairly, including the ability to be represented by a lawyer of one's choice, following the intense government crackdown after the March 2008 protests in Tibetan areas ( ). The fact that Phurbu Tsering was granted access to his chosen defense counsel may indicate that he was never suspected of having played a role in the protests. It may also suggest governmental concern about trying the highest-ranking Tibetan religious figure known to have been arrested since the March 2008 protests. Considered to be a reincarnated lama whose Chinese title is that of a "living Buddha," the authorities may be attempting to avoid triggering protests in an already-volatile Tibetan area with a massive security presence.

"The Chinese authorities have made a deliberate decision to give Phurbu a trial on par with national standards rather than the summary judicial procedures usually reserved for ordinary Tibetans who come before a court without the benefit of a lawyer they chose," said Richardson. "But to really build confidence in China's legal system, the authorities should ensure that all defendants have access to competent defense lawyers who can do their job without interference."

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.