HONG KONG—A prominent Tibetan businessman-turned-activist has gone on trial in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang, on theft-related criminal charges that were initially dropped in 1998, his relatives said.
Tibetan environmentalist and art collector Karma Samdrup went on trial Tuesday at a court in Yanqi county, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), on charges related to a grave robbery, regional sources said.
Dolkar Tso, Karma Sandrup's wife, said in an interview that her husband's trial lasted from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, with a short lunch break. She said he appeared to have been drugged, deprived of sleep, and tortured.
"I was allowed inside the courtroom," she said, adding that she wasn't able to speak to her husband.
"When I saw my husband, I couldn’t recognize him. He is so thin ... He was a tall, heavyset man, but now he looks so weak and small."
"When Karma said he was innocent, many people in the courtroom were in tears. Even the translators were in tears," she said, adding that the proceedings were to resume Wednesday.
"My hunch is that Karma will be O.K., but I could be wrong," she said. "It was very emotional to see my husband in such condition after six months."
Dolkar Tso said earlier that she had been refused permission to visit her husband during his detention.
"I went to Xinjiang five times and tried to pass over some money and other things, but they never allowed me to see him," she said.
Her husband's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, was allowed to see him for brief meetings overseen by several officials, and had told her that Karma Samdrup looked ill-fed, thin and weak, unshaven, and with long hair.
"I think he is not being provided with a proper diet," she said.
"He has lost about 40 kilos (88 pounds) since his detention in January this year, according to our lawyer."
Signs of torture
Pu, the lawyer, said Karma Sandrup was tortured in 1998 and again this year.
“The Bazhou Prefecture PSB [Public Security Bureau] tortured him and tried to get a forced confession from him. He lost 20 kilos (44 pounds) in prison from over 90 kilos (198 pounds) and he owes 660,000 yuan (U.S. $97,000) to the prison and other inmates for food and water,” he said in an interview.
“In China, on top of laws we have leaders. So you never know what will happen,” he said.
“We have the facts and the laws, and I believe Karma is innocent. Moreover, most accusations by the prosecutors were not immediately accepted by the court. The court said it would make a decision after reviewing these charges. But these reviews will be made by their leaders, and we don’t know what they will decide,” he said.
“There are clear signs of torture and forced confession through torture,” Pu said, as well as an obviously forged confession.
“I requested an independent trial but was told my request was not appropriate. Our defense has faced tremendous pressure and interference.”
On May 30, China's Supreme People's Court, Supreme People's Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Justice issued a joint statement announcing a ban on the use of evidence obtained through torture.
While legal analysts welcomed the new legislation, many question how the central government will be able to effectively implement it on a local level.
1998 charges dropped
Dolkar Tso said he was surprised that the dedicated conservationist had been targeted by authorities.
"He built bridges and tried to protect the environment, including sacred Buddhist sites," Dolkar Tso said. "He was even given an award in Lhasa."
Karma Samdrup was taken by authorities from his home in the southwestern province of Sichuan back to Xinjiang in January, on charges resurrected from a 1998 case against him which was dropped by order of Xinjiang's Supreme Court.
"I am really confused. I don't know why he was arrested," Dolkar Tso said.
"I have no idea why he was taken to Xinjiang. I see no reason to bring up an old case which was decided many years back and in which he was found innocent."
Karma Samdrup's lawyer, Pu, said he thought the case was unlikely to be a straightforward criminal case.
"I think that there are some extra-judicial factors, which are exerting a fairly strong influence," Pu said. "So I should say that I daren't be too optimistic about the outcome."
"Looking at the facts now, and according to my understanding of the law, my feeling is that Karma Samdrup's [actions] do not constitute a crime," he added.
Artifacts were stolen
Pu said the accusation against Karma Samdrup related to an incident in 1998, when he acquired, as an art collector, cultural artifacts that later turned out to have been stolen by grave-robbers.
Several men were convicted in connection with the robbery by the Yanqi County High People's Court, but the charges against Karma Samdrup were dropped.
Karma Samdrup comes from a family of prominent Tibetans, many of whom have already fallen foul of the Chinese authorities.
His elder brother, Rinchen Samdrup, was detained in August 2009 on charges of subversion and "splitting the motherland."
At the time of his detention, Karma Samdrup was in the process of setting up a museum of Tibetan culture, and was judged by other Tibetans to own the largest private collection in the world of Tibetan art and artifacts.
Several artists and intellectuals have been detained or have disappeared in recent months in what activists say amounts to the broadest suppression of Tibetan culture and expression in years.
Tensions have frequently risen in Tibetan areas of China since deadly rioting broke out following days of peaceful protests by Tibetans in their capital, Lhasa, in March 2008.
Security is also very tight in the XUAR ahead of the anniversary of deadly ethnic violence in the regional capital, Urumqi, which was sparked on July 5, 2009 by a demonstration by the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group whose homeland is in Xinjiang.
At least 200 people died in the violence, which Beijing has blamed on incitement by U.S.-based Uyghur exiled dissident Rebiya Kadeer.
Original reporting in Tibetan by RFA's Tibetan service and in Mandarin by Shi Shan. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Tibetan by Karma Dorjee. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.