China jails activist for five years for urging protection of Tibetan language

Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan entrepreneur and education advocate, could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of inciting separatism. (Photo courtesy: NYT)
Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan entrepreneur and education advocate, could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of inciting separatism. (Photo courtesy: NYT)

(, May23, 2018) – China has on May 22 morning sentenced Tibetan language rights activist Tashi Wagchuk to a five-year jail term for allegedly “inciting separatism” following a four-hour trial way back on Jan 4 in Yushu Prefecture of Qinghai Province. The sentence may seem relatively light, given the fact that the charge carries a maximum of 15-year jail term, according to his lawyers cited by Jan 2. However, Tashi had only complained against local authorities for violating China’s own law and government policy which supposedly protect the language and culture of ethnic minorities.

Tashi, 33, was sentenced despite a massive outpouring of international calls, including through parliamentary resolutions, for his release.

Tashi, a shopkeeper in Kyegudo County of Yushu Prefecture, was taken into custody on Jan 27, 2016, two months after he appeared in a New York Times documentary and article, asserting the Tibetan people’s right to learn and study in their mother tongue as seeming guaranteed by China’s law and government policy. He had contended that in his home town as well as across many historically Tibetan areas in the People’s Republic of China, the Tibetan language was threatened by official policies to make Mandarin Chinese the language of schooling and government.

The thrust of the court’s “finding” is that he had defamed the Chinese government. And for no other reason than the fact that he is a Tibetan, the ground for his conviction is “inciting separatism”.

Tashi’s conviction and sentencing has been strongly criticized by international human rights organizations which had persisted in campaigns calling for his release.

“Today’s verdict against Tashi Wangchuk is a gross injustice. He is being cruelly punished for peacefully drawing attention to the systematic erosion of Tibetan culture,” said Amnesty International’s East Asia Research Director Joshua Rosenzweig in a statement.

Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson had earlier said, “Tashi Wangchuk’s only ‘crime’ was to peacefully call for the right of minority peoples to use their own language—an act protected by China’s constitution and international human rights law.”

Likewise, Tenzin Jigdal of the International Tibet Network, a coalition of groups supporting Tibetan self-determination, was quoted as saying, “He has been criminalized for shedding light on China’s failure to protect the basic human right to education and for taking entirely lawful steps to press for Tibetan language education.”

Earlier, after Tashi’s trial, six experts advising the United Nations on human rights issues had said, “We condemn the continued detention of Mr Wangchuk and the criminalization of his freedom of expression.” And they added: “Free exchange of views about state policies, including criticism against policies and actions that appear to have a negative impact on the lives of people, need to be protected.”

President Lobsang Sangay of the Central Tibetan Administration called Tashi’s conviction a travesty of justice, noting, “his case highlights the lack of basic rights for Tibetans in Tibet.”

Calling it a sad day for those who believe in rule of law, he has vowed, “we will continue to advocate his release.”

Tashi’s prison term will start from the time of his arrest, meaning that he will be due for release in early 2021, his Chinese lawyers have said. Just two members of his family were allowed in to hear the verdict, with even his lawyers being not allowed to be present.

The guilty verdict, though totally unjustified, came as no surprise. China’s Communist Party-controlled courts rarely find defendants in criminal trials innocent, and virtually never do so in politically charged cases like this, noted May 22.

The report cited Todd Stein, a former United States State Department official who had dealt with China and Tibetan issues, as saying that the prosecution of Tashi raised difficult questions about how journalists should report on people whose views may rile the Chinese government.

Tashi had told the New York Times journalists that he did not support Tibetan independence, that he just wanted the Tibetan language to be taught well in schools, and for Tibetan to be used in local government offices in ethnic Tibetan areas.

And when asked about the risks of speaking out, Tashi had insisted on doing on-the-record interviews, saying that only those would give force to his words.


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