A Chinese court on Friday sentenced a man to 13 years in prison for inciting an ethnic Tibetan monk to set himself on fire, the latest punishment meted out in a crackdown as Chinese authorities try to stop a string of self-immolation protests that has reached almost 100 incidents.
The monk in China’s western Qinghai Province did not actually carry out the self-immolation in November, according to the state Xinhua news wire. But the court found the man, a 27-year-old ethnic Tibetan named Phagpa, guilty of “intentional homicide” for trying to get the monk to do so. Phagpa – many Tibetans have only one name – was also judged guilty of “inciting secession” for “efforts to spread ideas related to ‘Tibetan independence.’”
The same court on Friday also sentenced a man identified as a 60-year-old Tibetan herdsman named Gyadehor to four years in prison for inciting secession. Gyadehor had “spread opinions” about Tibetan independence when he brought cash and goods to console families of those who had self-immolated, Xinhua said.
The court found that his actions “constituted the crime of inciting a split of the state,” according to Xinhua.
Chinese authorities have failed so far to halt the fiery protests, which Beijing claims are the result of a conspiracy hatched by the “Dalai Lama clique,” a reference to the Tibetan spiritual leader who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959. Ethnic Tibetans in areas where the self-immolations have occurred, however, blame an oppressive atmosphere that they said has been created by a government campaign against their language, culture and religion.
The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group that tracks the incidents, puts the tally of self-immolations at 98 since March 2011, and 99 since one in February 2009. More than 80 are said to have died.
The self-immolations began in a Tibetan enclave of China’s western Sichuan province and have spread to three adjoining areas: Tibet itself, which is tightly controlled by Beijing and known formally as the Tibet Autonomous Region, and the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai.
While some observers wondered whether the new head of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, might bring a softer approach to the issue after taking power last year, state media have reported a series of moves that seem designed to deter further immolations by getting tough on those left behind.
On Jan. 31, Xinhua reported that six ethnic Tibetans in Gansu province had been sentenced to between three and 12 years in prison after a self-immolation there and an ensuing confrontation between local residents and police. On the same day, a court in Sichuan sentenced one man to death with a two-year-reprieve and his nephew to 10 years for “inciting eight people to self-immolate, three of whom died.”
On Thursday, Xinhua announced that authorities in Qinghai had since November detained 70 “criminal suspects” and formally arrested 12 of them. Among the 70 was a man named Phagpa, a man whose same name and similar alleged actions make clear that he was the person who was sentenced on Friday.
Xinhua said that Phagpa traveled illegally in 2005 from China to India, where he received training at “an institute specially created for the ‘Tibetan independence’ forces of the Dalai Lama clique.”
After returning to China, Xinhua said, Phagpa taught English at an orphanage and “delivered agitative speeches at the funerals of self-immolators.” He also was accused of inciting more than 50 primary school students and local herders to gather in front of a government building and shout pro-Tibetan independence slogans.
In November, the monk who Phagpa had allegedly convinced to self-immolate checked into a hotel, bringing gasoline with him.
The state-controlled China Daily newspaper reported on Friday that the monk, identified as a man named Drolma Je, was stopped from lighting himself on fire by a relative.
An earlier Xinhua report said that the monk is also in custody and facing charges.