Language advocate Tashi Wangchuk sentenced to five years

Tashi Wangchuk, arrested language campaigner 2016
Tashi Wangchuk
22nd May 2018

Arrested after speaking out to the New York Times, his case has gained international attention

Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk has been sentenced to five years in prison by a Chinese court, according to his lawyer Liang Xiaojun. Campaigners have condemned the decision, stating that it shows China’s legal rights are not worth the paper they are written on.

The decision – taken on 22 May – marks the final stage in Tashi Wangchuk’s lengthy legal battle after he was arrested in January 2016 and charged with “inciting separatism.” Tibetan solidarity groups, including Free Tibet, have signed on to a statement condemning the verdict as inhumane, lacking legal foundations and politically motivated.

Tashi Wangchuk, now 32, was born in Kyegudo, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in eastern Tibet and is a small business owner. A prominent member of his community, in 2014 he was even selected to appear in a video by online retail giant Alibaba.

In late 2015 he was interviewed by the New York Times. In the short documentary, he outlined his challenge to the Chinese government over what he claimed was its failure to protect and promote Tibetan culture and language. He had been frustrated by the lack of Tibetan language education available to his two teenage nieces, so had filed a lawsuit against the state. Article 4(4) of China's own constitution guarantees the protection and development of regional languages, both spoken and written, but these guarantees are rarely honoured and many Tibetans are fearful that the Chinese state is seeking to willfully undermine their native tongue. Seemingly as a result of this interview and lawsuit, Tashi Wangchuk was detained on 27 January 2016.

Tashi Wangchuk's family were not informed about his arrest until 24 March 2016, nearly two months later. Chinese Criminal Procedure law requires Public Security Officials to inform the family of the detainee within 24 hours of arrest. Even after they were notified, his family were not allowed to see him.

On 4 January of this year, after nearly two years of detention, Tashi Wangchuk stood trial. The entire process took just four hours and his New York times interview was played in court as a key piece of evidence against him. Officially he was charged with "inciting separatism", even though he had never expressed any desire for Tibetan independence and his campaign had focused solely on language rights. Free Tibet campaigned heavily in the lead up to the trial, encouraging supporters to contact their Foreign Ministers and embassies in China, urging them to send observers to the proceedings. Diplomats from the United States, Germany, Britain, Canada and the European Union turned up in an attempt to ensure the trial was conducted fairly but were denied access. Most of Tashi Wangchuk's family, as well as a reporter, were also refused entry to the court room despite several requests.

Today, after a further 137 days of waiting in a cell, he was found guilty and sentenced. The five-year term was handed down by the Yushu Intermediate People's Court.

Many Tibet support organisations have questioned the circumstances of the trial, saying the entire process demonstrates that China has no respect for the rule of law. “Tashi Wangchuk is an innocent man and his actions to date have not infringed Chinese criminal law and do not constitute a crime,” said Free Tibet Director, Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren. “In condemning him to five years in prison, China is sending a message to its own people that they do not care about law or justice or international standards and they will clamp down on anyone who opposes their regime. Vague charges for 'separatism' have been invented precisely for cases like this where Tibetans have simply tried to exercise their rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution – on paper at least.”

Byrne-Rosengren added: “We appreciate that this sentence could have been higher - anything up to 15 years was threatened - and we are glad that Tashi Wangchuk will be reunited with his family again at some point in the future. Nevertheless, he should never even have been arrested in the first place. It is a disgrace to the word 'justice' that any country claiming to be civilised would allow their criminal justice system to arrest a man for taking steps, that he was legally entitled to take, to ensure that children in his family could be educated in their mother tongue.”

According to the New York Times, Tashi Wangchuk's lawyers have indicated that he intends to appeal the decision.