Trumped-Up Case Against Karma Samdrup Follows Imprisonment of Relatives
June 10, 2010
These are test cases for the Chinese government. These people embody the characteristics the government says it wants in modern Tibetans – economically successful, lending support to only approved cultural and environmental pursuits, and apolitical – yet they, too, are being treated as criminals.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director

(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately release two Tibetan environmentalists held on trumped up charges for running an environmental group in their village, and should drop charges made against their brother, Karma Samdrup, after he tried to protest their detention, Human Rights Watch said today.

The two environmentalists, Chime (Jigme) Namgyal and Rinchen Samdrup, have been in detention in Tibet since August 2009. Karma Samdrup, a prominent Tibetan environmental philanthropist, one of China's leading collectors of Tibetan art, and founder of the award-winning Three Rivers Environmental Protection group, was seeking his brothers' release and was himself arrested on January 3, 2010, on charges of robbing graves that date back to 1998. His trial was initially scheduled for June 1, but was postponed at the last minute without explanations from the court, which has yet to set a new date for his trial.

"These are test cases for the Chinese government," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "These people embody the characteristics the government says it wants in modern Tibetans - economically successful, lending support to only approved cultural and environmental pursuits, and apolitical - yet they, too, are being treated as criminals."

Karma Samdrup, whose Chinese name is Rukai Gamasangzhu, is one of the largest private collectors of Tibetan antiques in China, as well as a dealer in Tibetan art. He was nicknamed the "King of Heavenly Beads" for his unparalleled collection of this traditional Tibetan artifact. He was the subject of a profile in the cultural supplement of Chinese weekly Southern Weekend in 2006, and of a 2009 biography by the Chinese journalist Liu Jianqiang, which was praised by the official news agency Xinhua.

In the mid-2000s, Karma Samdrup financed an environmental protection organization, the Qinghai Three River Environmental Protection group, after the Chinese government began a massive effort to protect the environment of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Over the years, the group has won several awards for its work, including a one million yuan (about US$130,000) grant as a "Model Project" from the One Foundation, a charity created by the Chinese martial art movie star Jet Li; and the Earth Prize, an environmental prize jointly administered by Friends of the Earth Hong Kong and the Ford Motor company.

Karma Samdrup was arrested in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on January 3. Police informed his wife, Zhenga, several days later that he was being detained on charges of robbing graves in Yanqi County, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, dating back to 1998. The police said that Karma Samdrup had acquired a number of artifacts allegedly looted from local archeological sites. The charges had been dropped by the police at the time after Karma Samdrup showed that he had a government license to trade in cultural relics. The maximum sentence for the crime of "excavating ancient cultural relics and tombs" under Chinese law is the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch said that Karma Samdrup's case showed serious and repeated violations of China's own criminal procedure law:

  • Karma Samdrup was denied the right to meet anyone, including his lawyers, for more than six months after his arrest.
  • The Yanqi court did not allow adequate time for the preparation of Karma Samdrup's defense. His lawyers, from the Huayi law firm in Beijing, were told on May 27 that the trial would be held on June 1. The court refused the firm's written request for a postponement.
  • The court refused to allow Karma Samdrup's lawyers to photocopy the 70-page prosecution file to prepare his defense, insisting that the lawyers could only "copy excerpts" of it.
  • Karma Samdrup was not permitted to meet any of his lawyers until the eve of his trial, May 31. That meeting lasted only 30 minutes, and was monitored by police officers in the room. Karma Samdrup's lawyer reported that he had found Karma Samdrup in poor spirits but had no opportunity to ask whether he had been ill-treated.
  • The trial was suddenly postponed, with no new date for the trial given by the court.

On June 3, the authorities shut down the web page Karma Samdrup's wife had posted the previous day. The site featured the notifications she had received from the court.

"The charges against and treatment of Karma Samdrup don't even meet the minimum procedural guarantees provided under Chinese law," Richardson said. "But instead of dropping the charges, the authorities keep him in detention."

Karma Samdrup's relatives and friends believe that the revival of the decade-old charges stems from his efforts to gain the release of his two brothers, Rinchen Samdrup and Chime (Jigme) Namgyal. The two brothers were arrested in August 2009, after the local environmental protection group they had created in their home village, in Changdu (Tib. Chamdo) prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region, had tried to bring attention to various alleged environmental abuses by local officials, including the hunting of protected species.

To date, Rinchen Samdrup is still being held in custody, while Chime (Jigme) Namgyal is serving a 21-month re-education-through-labor (RTL) sentence for "harming national security." Under China's RTL system, offenders who have committed "minor offenses that do not warrant criminal punishment" can be sent to labor camps for up to three years without the benefit of a trial or the right to be represented by a lawyer.

In the November 13, 2009 decision that lead to Chime (Jigme) Namgyal's sentence, the RTL management committee from Changdu (Tib. Chamdo) prefecture alleged that he had set up an illegal environmental organization that "illegally collected three digital disks of information and video footage about the environment, the natural resources and the religion of Changdu (Tib. Chamdo) prefecture ... provided pictures and material for the illegal publication ‘Forbidden Mountain, Prohibited Hunting' ... privately collected some propaganda material from the Dalai clique ... and organized the local residents into irregular petitioning of the authorities... therefore severely interfering with state power organizations at the local level and effectively harming social stability."

The description of the charges suggests that Chime (Jigme) Namgyal was a cause of potential embarrassment to the local authorities rather than a threat to national security, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch said that the trial of Karma Samdrup and the arrest of his two brothers reflected the increasing vulnerability of important cultural and entrepreneurial Tibetan figures to politically motivated arrests and prosecutions.

"Arbitrarily detaining and denying due process to Tibetans will do nothing but stoke the tensions between them and the Chinese government," Richardson said. "Instead of addressing the long-standing grievances that led to the massive protests in 2008 the government is responding with more pervasive repression."

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