Tibetans living under China’s rule are routinely denied the right to a fair trial, with judicial proceedings against them often held in secret and confessions obtained under torture used against them in court, a Tibetan rights group says in a new report.
Especially in cases deemed politically sensitive, “Tibetans are rarely informed of their right to counsel,” the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) says in its July 2020 report “Barriers to Exercising the Right to a Fair Trial in Tibet.”
“Very rarely are they able to retain a defence lawyer of their own choice. Many do not have legal representation at their trials,” TCHRD said, adding that in court proceedings involving “state security” or “state secrets” charges, “the cases against Tibetans are mostly completely closed to the public and the media.”
Family members are also often not told of their loved one’s detention or arrest, especially during periods of pre-trial detention when they are most likely to be severely tortured, TCHRD said.
“Since Tibetan detainees are mostly charged with national security crimes without due process, they are held incommunicado for months and sometimes never to be found alive.”
China’s procuracy meanwhile fills a dual role “as both prosecutor and supervisor of the legal process,” TCHRD said.
“It supervises the work of judges and the courts and can call for the reconsideration of cases including the instigation and extension of pre-trial detention, which result in a serious conflict of interest and a lack of independent oversight.”
Tibetans who try to voice their grievances against the Chinese government on social and environmental issues are frequently the targets of arrest, TCHRD researcher Pema Gyal told RFA’s Tibetan Service in a recent interview.
“And Tibetans who are arrested are barred from receiving a fair trial,” he said, citing the cases of Tibetan community leader Anya Sengdra, who had posted online criticisms of environmental damage and Chinese officials’ embezzlement of poverty alleviation funds, and Tashi Wangchuk, who had advocated publicly for Tibetan language rights.
Both are now serving long prison terms, and neither one had committed a criminal act according to China’s own constitution or laws, which are frequently disregarded in criminal prosecutions, Gyal said.
Judicial independence doesn’t exist
“In China, independent judicial practice doesn’t exist,” Gyal said, “as the Chinese Communist Party appoints judges who don’t favor any case that goes against the CCP.”
Meanwhile, clampdowns on communications in Tibetan areas of China block the regular flow of information to outside contacts, Gyal said, adding, “We still don’t know the number of Tibetans who have been arrested.”
RFA has previously reported numerous examples of secret trials, with defendants held incommunicado with little or no access to lawyers before a sentence is passed but not made public.
Last year, when a Tibetan monk who was jailed for three years after being held incommunicado for 14 months and shuffled among several different places and various detention centers in Sichuan province, Chinese human rights lawyers told RFA that few attorneys in China are willing or able to represent Tibetans and other ethnic minorities in political cases.
“China has confiscated the licenses of human rights lawyers,” New York-based Chinese attorney and rights advocate Teng Biao said, referring to a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers launched on July 9, 2015 that decimated the profession and is still claiming victims.
“Even if a Tibetan family tries to hire a lawyer for the defense, they fear further retaliation from the Chinese government,” he told RFA in September 2019.
Both in China and Tibet, “[China’s] constitution provides for the rule of law, but the constitution also provides that the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party takes precedence and is above all else,” TCHRD said in its report.
“It is likely that high conviction rates will continue given the lack of judicial independence, restrictions on defense lawyers and the overarching requirement to maintain stability.”
“The security of the state and the Party is paramount,” TCHRD said.
Reported and translated by Tashi Wangchuk for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.
Copyright © 1998-2020, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. https://www.rfa.org
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