Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Eleven Years on the Lam: Indictment of a Tibetan “Robber”

Barkhor Square in Lhasa, Tibet, on 22 September 2008. Image credit: Reurinkjan / CC BY 2.0 

Protests swept across the Tibetan plateau ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. More than a decade later, China continues to track down and punish pro-independence protesters who took part in the unrest, some episodes of which turned deadly. An indictment uncovered by Dui Hua reveals how one protester was ultimately found and punished years after their alleged crime.  

This case revolves around a Tibetan known by the name of Kelsang Cheron (格桑谢郎) who was accused of robbery. He was formally arrested on October 18, 2019 in Zhuoni County, Gansu, for a crime he allegedly committed 11 years ago during the Tibetan protests that began on March 17, 2008. The case was transferred to the procuratorate for prosecution on January 7, 2020. 

Cropped image of the indictment confirming that arrest of Kelsang Cheron in October 2019 for robbery. His name was partially redacted, but the full name was revealed later in the indictment.

Zhuoni County (Jonê County 卓尼县) is located in the southeast of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, one of the hardest hit regions during the 2008 Tibetan unrest. State news media reported that as of April 8, 2008 (about three weeks after the outbreak), 2,204 protesters reportedly turned themselves in and 432 people were in criminal detention for “beating, smashing, looting, and burning” (da za qiang shao 烧) across the prefecture. Derived from the denunciation of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, the phrase “beating, smashing, looting and burning” is highly ideological and permeates official accounts of popular protests, including June Fourth, regardless of whether violence is involved.  

It is questionable whether the robbery charge against Cheron is justified. Throughout the indictment the prosecutors failed to present evidence of him looting properties by means of force or fear. The allegations focused on his role as the principal organizer of the protests in Zhuoni County. First, he was accused of convening a secret meeting on March 17 with over 60 Tibetan monks in a forest near the Gongba Monastery to discuss the specifics of the protests and their plans to “smash” the public security bureau and county government office. The following morning, he gave Snow Lion flags to a group of 200 Buddhist monks to be used in a Buddhist ceremony. After the ceremony was over, the monks proceeded to march to the public security bureau and county government offices, where they allegedly waved the Snow Lion flags and chanted slogans about independence and “Long Live the Dalai Lama.”
Cropped image of the indictment showing the facts pertaining to Cheron’s crime of robbery. There is no evidence that Cheron engaged in looting or using force or intimidation, important requirements for the crime in many other jurisdictions outside of China.

Similarly, the indictment did not say whether the Tibetan monks looted anything valuable. However, evidence is cited of them damaging public property. They allegedly set fire and threw bricks and stones, destroying more than four million yuan worth of property such as fences, gates, computers, televisions, vehicles, and various data files. During the destruction, some protesters entered a primary school where they lowered the Chinese national flag and replaced it with the Snow Lion flag, which remained hoisted for days until police took the flag down on March 20.  

In May 2008, Tibetans in Dharamsala, India, protest China’s occupation while holding the Snow Lion flag. Image credit: Kiran Jonnalagadda / CC BY 2.0 

Cheron was on the run for 11 years until he was apprehended by Zhuoni Public Security on September 11, 2019. The indictment did not say whether he took part in the actual protests when the alleged violence occurred. It is only clear that he was the person who gave the protesters the Snow Lion flags on the morning of March 18 prior to the protests. The prosecutor argued that he was complicit in the commission of robbery with other Tibetan protesters. According to the indictment, Cheron refused to confess to his crimes during interrogation. 

The case of Cheron calls into question of the allegations of robbery, a crime many Tibetan monks were also accused of violating in 2008. Official accounts of his case bear resemblance to some of the problematic evidence about “beating, smashing, looting and burning” by pro-democracy protesters in 1989, with a notable example being Wang Jun (王军). Wang, 18 years old at the time, was caught at the scene during the April disturbance in Xi’an. In May, the Xi’an Intermediate People’s Court convicted Wang for arson and robbery and sentenced him to death for the two crimes. Upon appeal, the Shaanxi High Court, following the review instruction from the Supreme People’s Court, revised the combined sentence to death with two-year reprieve. The crime of robbery, which afforded him a life sentence, stemmed from Wang allegedly “taking advantage of the unrest and stealing an electronic calculator, cassette tapes, and pens.” Wang ultimately spent a total of twenty years in Shaanxi’s Fuping Prison before he was released in May 2009. 

Common charges against Tibetan protesters who participated in the 2008 unrest include robbery, arson, and gathering a crowd to disturb social order or to attack state organs. In the same year, the number of people tried for splittism nationwide doubled from 459 in the previous year to 926. By now, many of these Tibetan protesters are believed to have completed their prison sentences, but the fate of Kelsang Cheron remains shrouded in mystery. Dui Hua has been unable to find the judgment of his case. Given the abysmally low acquittal rates and his refusal to confess, it is likely that Kelsang Cheron is still behind bars for a disputable crime that he committed 14 years ago.