Award-winning Tibetan environmentalists given long prison sentences

Karma Sandrup, a wealthy Tibetan art collector is an unlikely political prisoner. His environmental group has won several awards for its work, including the Earth Prize, which is jointly administered by Friends of the Earth Hong Kong and the Ford motor company. The group was also recipient of an award from Jet Li's One World Foundation. In 2006, Samdrup was named philanthropist of the year by state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) for "creating harmony between men and nature".

Karma Samdrup, 42, environmental activist, and one of the wealthiest businessmen in Tibet was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on 24 June, on the charge of dealing with illegal antiques, a charge that was already dropped against him in 1998. Karma Samdrup was arrested on 3 January, 2010, after visiting his brothers in prison. It seems Karma Samdrup's sentence was a retaliation for his efforts to secure the release of his brothers who were arrested in August 2009, after they publicly denounced local officials for illegal hunting of endangered animals.

Karma's older brother, Rinchen Samdup, 44, was sentenced in July to five years imprisonment for 'inciting subversion'. His lawyer told Reuters that he was accused of posting a pro-Dalai Lama article on his website.

His daughter said: “Our father had to face this situation because of some local government officials of Chamdo prefecture...We the four family members were allowed to be inside the courtroom but we were not allowed to meet him. We were not allowed to meet him since his detention in August last year. Our father was looking very weak. He was not allowed to sleep well and had been repeatedly interrogated.” Xia Jun, his lawyer, said he was not allowed to meet Rinchen Samdrup since their first court session in January.

The third brother, Chime Namgyal, who is reportedly disabled, is serving a 21-month sentence in a labour camp for “endangering state security” because he did not register a new environmental group he founded, unofficially organised litter collection, tree planting and patrols to stop the hunting of endangered animals. According to Karma, who visited Chime in prison before his own arrest said that Chime was tortured badly and "might not be able to live much longer".

The brothers ran an award-winning environmental protection organisation called Snowlands Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association. All three brothers have been considered model citizens by China so far and their NGO was the recipients of many foreign as well as Chinese awards for its environmental achievements. Karma Samdrup was even named 'philanthropist of the year' in 2006 by the China Centre Television (CCTV), the government's mouthpiece.

The real reason behind the sentences, especially the charges of inciting subversion and endangering state security remain unclear as none of the three brothers criticised China or made political statements. It is believed that Rinchen and Chime crossed certain government officials including the police chief in Gonjo, Chamdo county when they publicly criticised them for illegal hunting. Karma's sentence is believed to be related to his public critique of the arrests of his brothers.

Sonam Choepel, their cousin is reportedly sentenced to one and a half years of re-education through labour after organising a petition in Beijing for Rinchen Samdrup's release. Another cousin, Rinchen Dorje, a monk who worked with Karma Samdrup is reportedly detained since March on unknown charges. On 5 July, a third cousin Tashi Topgyal, a teacher, was taken from Lhasa where he travelled to gather information on Rinchen Samdrup.

During his trial which lasted three days, Karma exposed the appalling torture he had suffered, despite changes announced by China, less than one month ago, that confessions extracted under torture would be inadmissible in court proceedings. According to his lawyer, Pu Xhiwaian, Karma will appeal the verdict. “The verdict was neither based on facts nor on law, and the procedure was completely illegal... There's absolutely no new evidence being presented in this case, and yet he is now found guilty."

The case of the this family show an alarming trend in Tibet of the targeting of artists, intellectuals, activists and influential Tibetan public figures who otherwise are not involved in political activities.

source:, June 2010

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