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(New York) - The trials of 30 Tibetans accused of participating in violent protests on March 14 in Lhasa were not open and public, as claimed by the Chinese government, and did not meet minimum international standards of due process, Human Rights Watch said today.

On April 29, 2008, the Intermediate People’s Court in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), conducted a “sentencing rally” (xuanpan dahui), during which the Tibetans’ sentences, which ranged from three years to life in prison, were announced. Reports from the official Chinese news agency Xinhua characterized the proceedings as an “open court session.” The actual trial proceedings, in which evidence from the prosecution was introduced, had been conducted covertly on undisclosed dates earlier in April.

“Guilty or innocent, these Tibetans (and any other defendant in China), are entitled to a fair trial,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, they were tried on secret evidence behind closed doors and without the benefit of a meaningful defense by lawyers they’d chosen.”

Human Rights Watch said that severe flaws in the regional authorities’ handling of the Tibetan protests precluded fair trials of people suspected of having participated in the disturbances. These flaws included a consistent failure to establish a distinction between peaceful and violent protesters; statements by the Procuratorate (the Public Prosecution) at the time of the suspected protesters’ arrest that assumed their guilt rather than their innocence; and secret trial proceedings. On March 17, Zhang Qinli, the TAR Communist Party secretary, urged that there be “quick arrests, quick hearings, and quick sentencings” of the people involved in the protests, virtually a political directive to circumvent guarantees for a fair and impartial legal process.

In addition, these 30 Tibetans may have been denied their right to their own counsel. All the lawyers who had publicly offered to defend Tibetan protesters were forced to withdraw their assistance after judicial authorities in Beijing threatened to discipline them and suspend their professional licenses. The authorities claimed that the Tibetan protesters were “not ordinary cases, but sensitive cases.” The government made clear it would not respect their right to choose their own counsel. In China, criminal suspects are often coerced by the law enforcement authorites to forfeit their right to a defense lawyer or to accept court-appointed attorneys who are under effective control of the judiciary. In a 142-page report published on April 29, Human Rights Watch documented a pattern of interference and political control of lawyers who take cases viewed as politically sensitive by government and party authorities.

Human Rights Watch said that the government’s efforts at preventing the involvement of lawyers in the Lhasa cases suggested a deliberate policy of secrecy and concealment.

“The Chinese authorities have so restricted the defendents’ rights that the hearings are no more than a rubber stamp,” Richardson said. “This isn’t fair and transparent justice, it’s political punishment masquerading as a legal process.”

Human Rights Watch said that the Chinese government had the right to prosecute and punish individuals who had committed violent acts, but that it should not suspend due process guarantees. Human Rights Watch said the political character of these first convictions raised serious concerns about future trials. A large number of trials of Tibetans accused of involvement in protests across Tibetan areas are expected to be held in the coming months.

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