(New York) - The international community should protest the imprisonment and secret sentencing of Paljor Norbu, an 81-year-old Tibetan traditional printer, and seek his immediate exoneration and unconditional release, Human Rights Watch said today.
Norbu, whose Chinese name is Panjue Nuobu (班觉诺布), was taken by the police from his home in Lhasa on October 31, 2008, on suspicion that he had printed "prohibited material," including the banned Tibetan flag. During his detention, judicial authorities refused to inform his relatives that he was being detained, or to reveal the charges against him. He was tried in secret in November and sentenced to seven years in prison. A letter informing his family of the sentence was then hand-delivered to them. His current whereabouts are unknown.
"Just about any material on Tibet that lacks the Chinese Communist Party's explicit blessing is ‘prohibited material,'" said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But no one should be jailed for printing flags, books, or pictures just because a government would prefer to suppress those ideas - that's why freedom of expression is a basic right."
Although the authorities have not made public the details of the verdict, the nature of the initial accusations leveled against Norbu and the length of the sentence suggest that he was tried on charges of "inciting separatism" (article 103 of the Criminal Law). This vaguely defined crime has been used repeatedly to silence Tibetans resisting the tight and often arbitrary limits imposed on their freedom of expression by Chinese law.
A descendant of a family with a long history of printing and publishing Buddhist texts for monasteries, Norbu is an internationally renowned master printer. He used both modern and traditional woodblock printing techniques in his workshop, which employed several dozen workers. In addition to religious texts, the shop printed prayer flags, folk reproductions, books, leaflets, and traditional literature.
After Norbu's arrest, the police closed his shop, affixed notices of official closure on the door, and prohibited employees from returning. The police also confiscated books and woodblocks from the shop's collection.
"Instead of persecuting Paljor Norbu, the Chinese government should prize his contributions toward historical and cultural preservation," said Richardson.
Human Rights Watch said that Norbu was not granted even the minimal rights that are supposed to be provided under Chinese criminal procedures. Violations included the failure to notify his family of his formal arrest or of the trial date; the refusal to reveal where he was detained; the failure to allow him defense representation of his choice in court; the failure to communicate the full verdict of the trial; and, the refusal to inform the family of his current whereabouts and of where he will serve his prison term.
Human Rights Watch said it has observed an increase in the number of arrests and convictions related to exercising the freedom of expression in recent weeks, indicating that the crackdown that Chinese authorities threatened after Tibetan protests in March 2008 was extending beyond the people suspected of involvement in those demonstrations. Other recent cases include:
- Jigme Gyatso (lay name Jigme Guri), a senior monk from the Labrang monastery, who was re-arrested on November 4 after he described how he had been tortured by the police during his detention in March and who is now in custody in Lanzhou (Gansu province);
- Norzin Wangmo (Chinese name: Longzhen Wangmu [龙真旺姆]), an employee of the Judicial Bureau of Hongyuan county (Sichuan province), sentenced on November 3 to five years of imprisonment after he told relatives abroad of the situation in Tibet; and
- Dhondup Wangchen, who had been detained in March in Tong De (Qinghai province), for his role in filming a clandestine documentary in the Tibetan areas. He is being held in the Ershilipu detention center in Xining.
"The Chinese government will almost certainly say that the charges brought against Paljor Norbu were ‘in accordance with the law,'" said Richardson. "But, by definition, those laws restrict free speech, and until the government brings its laws into conformity with international human rights norms, we will continue to see peaceful critics like Norbu incarcerated for alleged ‘separatism.'"