Advocates for greater Tibetan cultural rights under Chinese rule slammed the trial Thursday of Tibetan shopkeeper and language activist Tashi Wangchuk, calling his prosecution on charges of separatism a violation of guarantees under China’s own constitution.
Wangchuk, 32, was arrested in January 2016 after the New York Times ran a video report documenting the activist’s efforts to preserve and promote the use of his native language in Tibetan-populated regions of China.
He was put on trial on Thursday in Qinghai’s Yulshul (in Chinese, Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and faces a possible 15-year prison term when the court reads its verdict at a later date.
Speaking to RFA’s Tibetan Service on Thursday, Sonam Norbu Dakpo--secretary for information and international relations of Tibet’s India-based government in exile, the Central Tibetan Administration--said that Wangchuk had acted within his own rights under Chinese law.
“The government of China is denying us our right to use our language in our own areas, and so he legally appealed,” Dakpo said.
“But China’s central government has called this a separatist act.”
“This isn’t appropriate, because what he did was in accord with China’s own laws and constitution,” Dakpo said.
“The right to practice one’s own spoken and written language is an inherent human right,” added Trisong Dorje, a staff member at the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
“Similarly, in China’s constitution, the right to use one’s own language is clearly spelt out,” Dorje said, adding, “So what Tashi Wangchuk did is not wrong at all.”
Travel to Beijing
Speaking to RFA before the trial, Wangchuk’s defense attorney Liang Xiaojun said his client had been arrested mainly because of his interview with the U.S. newspaper and the release of the video publicizing his cause.
In the video, Wangchuk is seen traveling to Beijing to press his case for the wider use of the Tibetan language in Tibetan schools.
“He had hoped to urge the Chinese government to step up education in the Tibetan language,” Liang told RFA.
“He wanted to promote his ideas in many different ways, such as by bringing the issue to a Beijing court, or through media interviews or on the internet,” he said.
In a statement following the trial, Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet president Matteo Mecacci said that Wangchuk should never have been prosecuted or brought to trial.
“If China really seeks to avoid the ‘negative image’ in terms of international opinion that prosecutors claim was the outcome of this short and balanced video, it must now do the right thing and release Tashi Wangchuk,” Mecacci said.
Rights group Amnesty International meanwhile noted that Wangchuk had been held in pre-trial detention with no family contact for almost two years, calling it "appalling" that he could now face 15 years' imprisonment for peacefully expressing his views.
"These are blatantly trumped-up charges and he should be immediately and unconditionally released," said Roseanne Rife, Amnesty International's East Asia Research Director.
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 Sangye Dorje for RFA’s Tibetan Service and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated by Benpa Topgyal and Chen Ping. Written in English by Richard Finney.