A court in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan handed down an 11-year jail term to a Tibetan Buddhist monk on Monday in connection with the self-immolation death of Kirti monastery-based monk Rigzin Phuntsog in March.
Lobsang Tsondru (in Chinese, Drongdru), 46, pleaded guilty to charges of murder and was sentenced to 11 years in prison, official media reported.
Two more Kirti monks will be tried on Tuesday, also charged with murder.
On March 16, Rigzin Phuntsog, a 21-year-old monk at the Kirti monastery in Ngaba prefecture, set fire to himself in protest of rule by Beijing, leading to a security crackdown by Chinese forces and the forced removal of about 300 monks from the monastery.
"The trial has begun [this morning]," said an official who answered the phone at the Maerkang County People's Court.
But he declined to comment further. "You will have to call another department ... but I can't give you their number because it's a secret internal number," he added.
Two other Kirti monks, Tsering Tenzin and Tenchum, will stand trial on Tuesday charged with plotting, instigating, and assisting in Phuntsog's self-immolation.
Kalsang, a member of the Dharamsala-based exile Tibetan parliament, said the community was watching the trials carefully.
"They are saying that these three monks aided and abetted Phuntsog's self-immolation, and that they also hid him," he said. "This meant it took longer to treat him, and led to his death."
"They are saying that this amounts to deliberate homicide."
According to an announcement from the Maerkang County People's Court, the three monks were part of a premeditated plan to ensure that Phuntsog's self-immolation resulted in death.
"They were well aware that Phuntsog had sustained serious injuries from the burns, and they moved him when he should have received emergency medical care," the court statement said.
Jampel Monlam, assistant director of the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, said the three monks were detained during the crackdown on Kirti monastery, but that attempts were made to save Phuntsog by monks there.
"The Chinese Communist Party is trying to place responsibility for this on the lamas at Kirti, by saying that they are murderers," he said. "They are confusing black with white."
He said Kirti was under continued guard by police and armed police, and that the authorities had installed closed-circuit television cameras to monitor activity inside the monastery.
Kalsang said the Tibetan community was expecting heavy sentences for all three monks.
"For charges of deliberate homicide, the sentences will be very heavy," Kalsang said. "In cases of this kind, the authorities don't allow the families of the accused to pay for their own lawyers; they will be given a lawyer by the government."
But he said the Chinese government was ignoring the real reason behind Phuntsog's death.
"Phuntsog set fire to himself out of despair at the treatment of monks at Kirti monastery and at all Tibetan monasteries, which included strict controls on Tibetans," Kalsang said.
"But the authorities want to make excuses so they are making these monks carry the blame."
Tsering, a monk at the exile Kirti monastery in India, cited sources inside Ngaba as saying that there was some confusion over the names of the suspects, adding that there were four monks whose families had been invited to attend the trials.
Beijing has rejected calls from a U.N. human rights panel to provide information about the whereabouts of more than 300 of Kirti's monks who remain unaccounted for since the monastery was raided in April.
The Foreign Ministry said only that monks were undergoing "legal education."
Chinese authorities frequently carry out "political re-education" of Tibetan monks, who are put under pressure to renounce their allegiance to the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Phuntsog's death was echoed in a second self-immolation death in Kardze earlier this month.
On Aug. 15, Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year-old monk from Kardze's Nyitso monastery, set fire to himself outside the Tawu county government offices after handing out leaflets calling for human rights for Tibetans and the return of the Dalai Lama.
Kardze has been the scene of repeated Tibetan protests, both by individuals and by small groups, despite the threat of detentions and violent assaults against protesters by Chinese police.
Local Tibetan and exile sources say security forces converged on the monastery in the wake of the Tsewang Norbu's protest.
Meanwhile, Kirti monastery is still under tight guard by security forces who are accused by pro-Tibetan groups overseas of beating onlookers and detaining monks.
No foreign journalists have been permitted to visit the region.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service, and by Rigdhen Dolma for the Tibetan service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.