A court in China’s Qinghai province on Tuesday sentenced Tibetan shopkeeper and language activist Tashi Wangchuk to five years in prison for “separatism,” prompting an outcry from governments and rights organizations who said the sentence highlights Beijing’s disregard for its own laws protecting ethnic autonomy.
The verdict by the court in Qinghai’s Yulshul (in Chinese, Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture ended a controversial trial in which the prosecution based its case on a video report by the New York Times documenting the activist’s efforts to preserve and promote the use of his native language in Tibetan-populated regions of China.
Wangchuk, 33, was arrested in January 2016, two months after the Times ran its video report, and had faced a possible 15-year prison term for the charges. His sentence of five years will include his time already spent in detention.
In the video, Wangchuk is seen traveling to Beijing to press his case for the wider use of the Tibetan language in Tibetan schools. Prosecutors used this as evidence, despite his repeated disavowals of separatism and his stated intention to use the Chinese law to protect the Tibetan tongue.
The Times quoted Wangchuk’s lawyers, Liang Xiaojun and Lin Qilei, as saying that the activist had already planned to appeal if he was convicted. They said that only two members of his family were allowed to attend his hearing on Tuesday.
The Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan exile government, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), and the U.S. hit out at Wangchuk’s sentencing, calling for his immediate release.
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, political leader of the CTA, told RFA’s Tibetan Service that the verdict was a “travesty,” as Wangchuk was only “advocating the language rights of the Tibetan people per the provisions in the Chinese constitution.”
“His case highlights the lack of basic, fundamental rights for Tibetan people in Tibet,” he added.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement that Washington was “deeply disappointed” by the conviction of the activist “for exercising his fundamental freedom of expression in calling on the government to give greater attention and resources to teach the Tibetan language in Tibetan areas.”
“We urge Chinese authorities to release Tashi Wangchuk immediately, and to protect the distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of Tibetans,” she said.
Rights groups weigh in
Rights groups also slammed the verdict, with the director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala, Tsering Tsomo, saying Wangchuk’s sentencing “was a litmus test for China’s respect for rule of law, and China failed it.”
“His case is representative of China’s long-held contempt of Tibetan culture and language and their systematic effort to stamp out any sign of Tibetan identity. Although Tashi Wangchuk received the prison sentence, broadly speaking, the decision is reflective of China’s draconian policy toward Tibetan language and cultural identity.”
Tsomo said a gulf exists between the letter of the law in China and how laws are implemented, noting that China’s constitution and regional ethnic autonomous laws “clearly guarantee” the preservation and protection of minority languages.
“The verdict contradicts Chinese law—the charges against Tashi Wangchuk are trumped up and he is innocent,” she said, adding that sentencing him for separatism is “absurd.”
Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said in a statement that Tuesday’s verdict “signals China’s harsh and extreme approach to Tibetan culture and the criminalization of moderate, peaceful efforts within Chinese law to protect the use of Tibetan language.”
“In this case, minority rights outlined in China’s Constitution were on trial, and the outcome reflects the emptiness of China’s claims to protect Tibetan language and culture,” ICT president Matteo Mecacci said.
ICT suggested that the verdict was intended as “a strong warning to other Tibetans” who may think about speaking to journalists, even about issues that are protected under Chinese law.
Sophie Richardson, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said Wangchuk’s punishment was “outrageous,” given that he had simply tried to follow the law and encourage the government to follow its own obligations.
“The fact that the authorities have chosen to treat that as ‘inciting separatism’ really shows how hostile the government is toward any sort of ethnic minority rights,” she said.
“It is unlikely the Chinese authorities will reverse this decision, even if Tashi Wangchuk appeals,” she said, adding that HRW was calling on China to “drop the charges because they are baseless.”
James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, said Wangchuk should “never have spent a single day in detention.”
“This type of peaceful advocacy of Tibetan language rights is protected under international law, and of course it is explicitly protected under the Chinese constitution and regional ethnic autonomy laws,” he said.
Writers, singers, and artists promoting Tibetan national identity and culture have frequently been detained by Chinese authorities, with many handed long jail terms, following region-wide protests against Chinese rule that swept Tibetan areas of China in 2008.
Language rights have become a particular focus for Tibetan efforts to assert national identity in recent years, with informally organized language courses typically deemed “illegal associations” and teachers subject to detention and arrest, sources say.
Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.