World News

Tibetan Advocate’s Prison Term in China Is Condemned

Posted June 7, 2018 4:16 p.m. EDT

U.N. human rights experts have formally condemned the punishment of a Tibetan education advocate who was sentenced to five years in prison after giving interviews to The New York Times.

Since his detention in January 2016, the advocate, Tashi Wangchuk, 33, has become one of the most prominent symbols among critics of China’s legal system and policies in Tibetan regions. In sentencing him on May 22, a court said he was guilty of “inciting separatism.”

On Wednesday, six U.N. experts issued a statement from Geneva.

“We are gravely concerned,” they said, “about the sentencing of Mr. Tashi Wangchuk, and the sanctioning of his right to freely express his opinion about the human rights of the Tibetan minority of China.”

The experts expressed regret that the court sentenced Tashi despite them having twice called on China to drop the charges and release him immediately.

In December, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said it had concluded that Tashi’s detention was an arbitrary “deprivation of liberty.”

Tashi stood trial in January in his hometown, Yushu, known as Gyegu in Tibetan. He said he was not guilty of the charge of inciting separatism.

In his interviews with Times journalists in 2015, Tashi said he did not support Tibetan independence and he was advocating simply for greater use of the Tibetan language in schools across Tibetan regions, including in his hometown. Chinese is the dominant language of education in the regions.

In those interviews, Tashi also praised the leadership of President Xi Jinping and said he hoped Xi would govern according to the Chinese Constitution, which guarantees autonomous rights for ethnic minority areas.

In the trial, officials presented as evidence a nine-minute video The Times produced in 2015 that had interviews with Tashi about the dire state of Tibetan language education in Tibetan regions. Tashi had insisted on doing all interviews on the record.

Tashi expressed concerns about the fading of Tibetan culture under policies enacted by local officials. The video showed him in Beijing trying unsuccessfully to bring a lawsuit against local officials and failing to get China Central Television, the main state television network, to do a story on his mission.

A former monk, Tashi lived with his elderly parents in the center of Yushu and ran a small shop. He was also an online entrepreneur, and the giant Chinese technology company Alibaba featured him in a promotional video. Before contacting Times journalists in 2015, Tashi had begun expressing his views on preserving the Tibetan language on a blog.

The United States, several Western nations and international human rights groups denounced the sentencing of Tashi in May.

In their statement Wednesday, the U.N. experts said, “Governments should under no circumstances undermine or repress legitimate human rights advocacy and action, such as in this case, using national security, public order or anti-terrorism discourses.”

“We asked the government to provide information about specific measures undertaken to promote and protect the linguistic and cultural rights of the Tibetan minority,” the experts added. “We regret that, to date, the government of China has not yet provided us with a satisfactory response.”

Tashi’s time served in detention counts as part of his sentence, so he will probably leave prison in early 2021, his lawyers said.