URGENT: Tashi Wangchuk, a 33-year old Tibetan shopkeeper and language rights advocate, was sentenced on Tuesday 22 May to five years in prison on politically motivated charges of ‘inciting separatism’ after he publicly sought to realise his right to Tibetan language education. Tashi has already spent over two years in Chinese detention despite the fact that he has committed no crime under both international law and that of the Chinese constitution. He is now not due to be released until January 2021.
China's main 'evidence' against Tashi at his trial in January 2018 was a short video documentary by The New York Times in 2015, which highlighted Tashi’s campaign for Tibetan language education in schools.
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BACKGROUND: Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan shopkeeper from Jyekundo County, Yulshul Prefecture, Kham, eastern Tibet (Chinese: Yushu, Qinghai Province), advocated publicly for greater Tibetan language education in schools in Tibetan populated areas. Chinese has increasingly become the predominant language of instruction in Tibet, often being the exclusive language taught.
In November 2015, Tashi Wangchuk appeared in an article and short documentary in the New York Times in which he advocated for the rights of Tibetans to learn and study in their mother tongue. Although he told the paper explicitly that he was not calling for Tibetan independence, he is now facing a politically motivated charge of “inciting separatism.”
Tashi Wangchuk was detained on 27 January 2016 in Jyekundo County, Yulshul Prefecture, Kham, eastern Tibet (Chinese: Yushu, Qinghai Province). He was tortured and suffered extreme inhuman and degrading treatment during the first week of detention. He was initially held in for a lengthy period in a ‘tiger chair’ where he was subjected to arduous interrogation, and was repeatedly beaten by two Tibetan police officers. His interrogators threatened him with harming his family.
Tashi Wangchuk’s relatives were not notified of his detention until 24 March 2016; a violation of Chinese law which requires that a detainee’s family be told within 24 hours of the start of captivity. He was charged in March 2016 with “inciting separatism,” and, if found guilty, faces up to 15 years in prison.
In September 2016, prosecutors concluded their investigation and sent his case to a criminal court in Yushu prefecture, Qinghai for trial. In December 2016, they took the unusual step of asking the court to send the case back to them for further investigation. The re-investigation concluded on 4 January 2017, and the case has now been returned to the court for trial, and the document, submitted to the Procuratorate (Prosecutor) by police indicates that the investigation into Tashi Wangchuk focuses on the New York Times documentary about his unsuccessful efforts to use the legal system to challenge Chinese government policies.
On 26 May 2017, a Communication to China by five UN Special Procedures mandate holders was made public; they expressed "serious concern at the arrest, the initial incommunicado detention and the continued detention of Tashi Wangchuk, as well as his limited right to counsel, the denial of presenting the evidence against him and the irregularities in the criminal investigation". They further expressed concern about the charge of “inciting separatism” which "criminalize(s) the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and his defense of cultural rights", according to UN experts.
Neither Tashi Wangchuk’s indictment nor any evidence of him having committed a crime have been made public. During Tashi Wangchuk’s year in detention his lawyers, Lin Qilei and Liang Xiaojun have only been able to visit him four times (19 June, 8 & 9 September, 2 November). He had no access to his family until September 2016. He is also at risk of torture while in detention; in December 2015 the United Nations Committee Against Torture found that that the practice of torture and ill-treatment was“still deeply entrenched in [China’s] criminal justice system”, which “overly relies on confessions as the basis for convictions”. This included “numerous reports from credible sources that document in detail cases of torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention and disappearances of Tibetans.”
The Tibetan language is the bedrock of Tibetan culture, religion and identity and it has been steadily undermined under Chinese rule over the past six decades. Since anti-government protests erupted across the Tibetan plateau in March 2008, the Chinese government has sought multiple ways of increasing control of the Tibetan people. Since then Chinese authorities have put an even more heightened focus on the dominance of the Chinese language to the detriment of Tibetan language, and have also marginalized Tibetan language by withdrawing it from the curriculum.In 2010 and 2012, proposed changes to replace Tibetan with Mandarin as the language of instruction in schools sparked mass peaceful protests. Tibetan primary, secondary and higher education is being replaced with Mandarin across all of Tibet. Local community-based language empowerment initiatives promoting Tibetan language have been reportedly shut down by the Chinese Government, which has labelled Tibetan as containing ‘splittist vocabulary’. As a result, attempts made by Tibetans to preserve their language have become a political matter, making the maintenance of Tibetan language increasingly difficult.
Chinese policies undermining the Tibetan language run counter to provisions in China’s own laws, specifically the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law; protections for language and culture included in Chinese law are not implemented in Tibet. These policies also violate the international right to cultural rights of Tibetans living under Chinese rule.
The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Constitution and Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law of the People’s Republic of China stipulate that all minority nationalities have the right to use and develop their own spoken and written languages. The PRC’s Law on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language, PRC’s Compulsory Education Law and China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) also provide for language rights to minority nationalities.
Despite these provisions, Tashi Wangchuk was arbitrarily detained and charged with political crimes. In reality Tashi Wangchuk acted within his rights to express his concern publicly on the marginalisation of Tibetan language and culture, and to file a lawsuit against the PRC authorities for failing to implement the legal provisions.
Tashi Wangchuk’s arrest comes in a context of increased state repression against nonviolent activists and lawyers. In July 2015 the PRC passed a series of sweeping laws and regulations, The National Security Law, under the pretext of enhancing national security. There are fears that they can and are being used to silence dissent and crack down on human rights defenders through expansive charges such as “inciting subversion” and “separatism”. Harsh criminal sentences are imposed by the PRC on writers, bloggers, journalists, academics, whistle-blowers and ordinary citizens for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International has documented the misuse of the various charges of “separatism” and “terrorism” to violate the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and religion.
Tibetans face discrimination and restrictions to many of their rights, including to freedom of religious belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly. Tibetan monks, writers, protesters and activists are regularly and increasingly detained as a result of their peaceful activities.
Tashi Wangchuk’s case is indicative of this repression of human rights defenders and Tibetans, and raises real concerns about the lengths the Chinese state is prepared to go to to maintain its desired status quo.