Monday, June 22, 2009

Tibetan Guide's Incitement Case Surfaces: 3-Year Sentence for Emails, Text Messages

Dui Hua has obtained and produced English translations of the indictment and verdict (original documents in PDF) for a previously unknown case of a Tibetan sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting splittism” after the March 14 riots in Lhasa. The case against Gonpo Tserang (贡保才让), a well-respected expedition guide who has trekked with foreign celebrities and participated in high-profile mountain rescue efforts, involved a series of emails and text messages sent over three days to acquaintances outside of China. These messages, which prosecutors claim “distorted the facts and true situation regarding social stability in the Tibetan area following the ‘March 14 incident” were considered by the court to be deserving of severe punishment.

This case is significant in a number of respects. First, it is the only case Dui Hua is aware of in which a Tibetan in Yunnan Province has been convicted of a state security crime following the Tibetan protests of 2008. Second, it is not at all apparent that the charge of “inciting splittism” was properly applied. The content of the messages is never specified, and it is questionable whether individuals who are not located in China are even capable of carrying out acts that would “split the nation or undermine national unity.” An argument could thus be made that, never imagining that his messages could “incite splittism,” Gonpo Tserang did not intend to do so. This is perhaps an argument that an attorney could have raised in his defense. Unfortunately, it appears that, at least for his appeal, Gonpo Tserang was not represented by counsel—very likely a result of the reluctance of most lawyers to take on criminal defense work in political cases and the threats made warning of serious consequences for lawyers who volunteered to defend Tibetans.

Finally, Gonpo Tserang’s case illustrates both the extent to which Chinese police were engaged in monitoring communications between Tibetans and outsiders during the period after the protests and the low threshold for criminal liability in such situations. We do not know the content of Gonpo Tserang’s messages, but sending this handful of messages to individuals outside of China resulted in a three-year sentence. Such intense monitoring and the potential consequences of being caught saying the wrong things to outsiders help to explain the wariness of many Tibetans to report what they witnessed. To a large extent, this wariness has allowed the official Chinese narrative of events to become dominant. It also compels observers to wonder what punishments might be handed down to Tibetans who have been reported detained for saying or doing even more.