Ten Tibetan villagers given long prison terms by a Chinese court this year on charges of extortion were targeted in an anti-gang campaign used as a cover for cracking down on grass-roots community organizations deemed threats to Communist Party control, a Tibetan advocacy group said on Thursday.
Residents of Sangchu (in Chinese, Xiahe) county in Gansu province’s Kanlho (Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, the villagers were tried under a three-year effort aimed at wiping out “gang activity” and organized crime in China, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet said in a report.
“In reality, the trial shows that the defendants, who are respected community leaders, were only requesting compensation for property damage from state highway projects,” said ICT, which reviewed a 10-hour video of the trial, which was broadcast live on Gansu television, in preparing its report.
Defendants had also raised concerns about a slaughterhouse in their hometown, and had raised funds to procure a piece of abandoned land for the use of their local monastery, ICT said, adding that both prosecutors and judges had repeatedly referred to the group on trial as an “evil gang.”
Following their conviction in the June 28-29 trial, the villagers were sentenced to prison terms of from nine to 14 years after compensation payments awarded in 2013 for damage to local dwellings caused by road work were presented in court as evidence of “extortion,” the Tibetan rights group said.
A one-million yuan donated the year before by a slaughterhouse company for construction of a Buddhist monument called a stupa to comfort Tibetan community members upset by the slaughter of animals was also used in evidence against them.
“Tibetans in general have been concerned by ill-conceived development projects imposed top-down by Beijing,” ICT said in its report, adding that Tibetans in Sangchu county have been challenging state development projects in their area for years.
“They feel these projects threaten the survival of their traditional way of life,” with the forms of Tibetan challenges ranging from repeated complaints made to local Chinese authorities, open public protests, and even self-immolations, ICT said.
To deter suspected challenges to Party control even at the village level, Chinese authorities meanwhile view Tibetans’ community service and organizing—with the Sangchu defendants’ Monastery Folk Management Committee held out as an example—as a form of “gang crime,” the rights group said.
Defense attorneys pointed out at trial that their clients had not extorted anyone, ICT said. “They also raised concerns about the years-long delay in charging the 10 Tibetans and other procedural flaws.”
“The conviction of the Sangchu 10 exposes the flaws of China’s ‘anti-gang’ campaign and judicial system in Tibet, which unfairly targets Tibetans,” ICT President Matteo Mecacci said in an Oct. 1 statement.
“The people of Tibet are entitled to their fundamental rights, including when prosecuted, and the Chinese authorities should realize that by unjustly punishing Tibetans, they only aggravate the situation and increase the people’s mistrust in their rule,” Mecacci said.
Development projects in Tibetan areas have led to frequent standoffs with Tibetans who accuse Chinese firms and local officials of pilfering money, improperly seizing land, and disrupting the lives of local people.
Many result in violent suppression and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government’s wishes, with protest leaders frequently detained and charged under cover of a Chinese campaign against so-called “underworld criminal gangs” in Tibetan areas.