Founder of Tibetan cultural website sentenced to 15 years in closed-door trial in freedom of expression case

Kunchok Tsephel

Kunchok Tsephel, an official in a Chinese government environmental department and founder of the influential Tibetan literary website, www.tibetcm.com

Kunchok Tsephel, an official in a Chinese government environmental department and founder of the influential Tibetan literary website, Chodme (‘Butter-Lamp’, www.tibetcm.com), has been sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of disclosing state secrets, according to reports from Tibet received by Tibetan exiles. Some of the charges are believed to relate to content on his website, which aims to protect Tibetan culture, and passing on information about last year’s protests in Tibet.

The news emerged as US President Obama made a pointed reference during his visit to China about the importance of free flow of information and uncensored internet access. Speaking to students in Shanghai today as part of a week-long visit to Asia, President Obama said: “I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable.”

Thirty-nine year old Kunchok Tsephel was detained in the early hours of the morning on February 26. His house was ransacked and his computer, camera and mobile phone seized. His family had no idea where he was until last week, according to the same sources. They were summoned to court on November 12 to hear the verdict of 15 years imprisonment after a closed-door trial at the Intermediate People’s Court of Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu province.

Kunchok Tsephel, who was born into a nomadic family in 1970 in Machu (Chinese: Maqu) county, Gannan, the eastern Tibetan area of Amdo, is fluent in Tibetan, English and Chinese. He studied English and Chinese languages at Beijing Nationality University and from 1997-99, continued to study English at North Western Nationality University in Lanzhou. In 2004, he was recruited as a Tibetan and English language teacher at the Tibetan Nationality Middle School in Machu, in addition to his work for the Chinese government environmental department. He founded his website on Tibetan arts and literature in 2005, together with a young Tibetan poet Kyabchen Dedrol. The website, which was shut down by the authorities several times over the past few years, was self-funded with a mission of promoting Tibetan arts and literature.

According to his friends, Kunchok Tsephel is in poor health after nine months of detention and interrogation and there are fears for his welfare. Until his detention, he provided the main source of income for his family; his wife, who is also a government worker, is currently caring for their sick daughter.

Kunchok Tsephel had undergone an earlier period of detention in 1995 linked to suspicion of involvement in political activities. He was tortured and interrogated but protested his innocence and was released without charge after two months.

One of Kunchok Tsephel’s close friends, who is now in exile, said today: “His family has endured nine months of agonizing waiting after Kunchok disappeared in February. Now they are even more distraught by this long sentence. Because the charges related to state secrets, they do not even know why Kunchok has been sentenced to 15 years, and he has been denied access to a lawyer.”

The Chinese government does not need to define what constitutes a ‘state secret.’ ‘State secrets’ laws and regulations are implemented through Communist Party controlled-government bodies that work together with state security, and through criminal laws, to create an opaque system that controls the classification of—and criminalizes the disclosure or possession of—state secrets.

The human rights monitoring organisation Human Rights in China states: “Tight control over this system by the government bureaucracy, headed by the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets, gives the Chinese Communist Party leadership the power to classify any information it desires as a state secret and thereby keep or – even if it is already public – remove it from circulation. This information includes the state secrets laws and regulations themselves, and without public dissemination of these laws, it is exceptionally difficult for individuals to know for sure when they are violated. Instead of the ‘harmonious society’ being called for by Chinese leaders, what remains is a controlled society where critical voices pay a heavy price.” (‘State Secrets: China’s Legal Labyrinth,’ a report by Human Rights in China, June 12, 2007).

Since protests broke out across Tibet in March 2008, the Chinese government has stepped up efforts to silence Tibetans from speaking about the unrest, and have strengthened attempts to cover up the torture, disappearances and killings that have been part of the crackdown. New campaigns directed against Tibetan culture and religion have been initiated, and now almost any expression of Tibetan identity not directly sanctioned by the state can be branded as ‘reactionary’ or ‘splittist’ and penalized with a long prison sentence, or worse. Tibetan intellectuals, writers and bloggers who have expressed views about the situation have been at increasing risk and a number have ‘disappeared’ or sentenced to prison terms (ICT report, Fears for missing Tibetan writer; continued crackdown on writers and artists).

 

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