06 May 2009

Phurbu Tsering, Deng Yonggu and Delayed Verdicts

I've been spending a lot of time recently tracking cases of Tibetans who've been detained over the last year since March 2008. Contrary to what the Chinese media would have you believe, most of these detentions did not involve people who "burned, smashed, or looted" in the violent incidents in Lhasa on March 14. In fact, the vast majority of detentions have been of individuals who engaged in peaceful protests in Tibetan areas in Qinghai, Gansu, and especially Sichuan provinces—areas known as Amdo and Kham to Tibetans.

One of these cases was much in the news over the past couple of weeks, that involving a Tibetan lama and "living Buddha" named Phurbu Tsering, who is well respected in and around Kardze (Ganzi). Phurbu Tsering has been charged with illegal possession of a firearm and illegal appropriation of government property and faces 15 years in prison. Part of what makes his case so noteworthy is that he is being defended by two well-known Han Chinese defense attorneys from Beijing, Li Fangping and Jiang Tianyong, who have so far provided a strong defense poking many holes in the prosecution's case.

One of the things that makes Li and Jiang so good is their work with the international media. When Phurbu Tsering went on trial, they emphasized that under Chinese law the court had one week to render its decision. This created a sense of urgency, a neat time-frame for a focused international campaign to develop and move forward. I'd be extremely surprised, however, if either of them was surprised when, one week having elapsed, the Kangding [Dartsedo] County People's Court opted to postpone issuing a verdict.

It was in this context that I was mightily amused last week to read "legal experts" quoted in an update on the case as saying the decision to delay issuing a verdict in Phurbu Tsering's case was "rare." The only way such a decision could be considered "rare" or "unusual" is if you completely discounted both the international attention being paid to the case and the likelihood of further protests erupting if the court decided to convict this esteemed local figure. (Dozens of nuns were detained in protests following his detention in May 2008.)

Now, I haven't had the time to muster conclusive evidence—and given the lack of transparency in China's criminal justice system, any such evidence would be anecdotal at best—but I can probably think of at least a couple of dozen cases in which this particular procedural one-week deadline for courts to render a verdict in a criminal trial has been ignored. The fact is that for controversial cases like this one it is more-or-less expected that judges will not rush to issue a judgment but, rather, sit and wait for instructions from above about how (and when) to rule—especially, I would argue, when the trial is being held by a basic-level court.

For example, as far as I know there is yet no ruling in Deng Yonggu's criminal defamation trial held nearly two weeks ago. Given all of the attention that's been paid to abuse of criminal defamation charges to stifle criticism of local misconduct—not to mention the connection of Deng's case to last year's Sichuan earthquake, which is about to mark its first anniversary—the lack of a timely verdict is unsurprising.

This doesn't even factor in the flouting of numerous other deadlines in the course of prosecuting criminal cases, particularly sensitive cases involving "state security" charges. As I wrote in this essay, one of the things that made the prosecution of Hu Jia on charges of "inciting subversion" so unusual was how quickly it was carried out. Most of these cases simply drag on and on and on, with no consequences. And that's the part that most people familiar with, for example, the American justice system forget: in China, violations of defendants' rights do not result in cases being dismissed. They are simply ignored.

For this reason, I'm not sanguine about the delay in sentencing for Phurbu Tsering. It's probably true that one of the reasons the sentencing was delayed is because of the international attention the case has garnered. And Phurbu Tsering's lawyers are right to use the delay to create a case for increased, continued pressure. But I fear that the delay merely means that the authorities will seek an opportune moment when the world's attention is focused elsewhere to deliver the bad news. I hope I'm wrong, but many years of tracking these kinds of cases does not give cause for much optimism. It's a sad fact that in individual Chinese cases international pressure seems to work best only after an individual winds up in prison.

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