County Court Convicts Monks of Intentional Homicide for Sheltering Self-Immolation Monk

October 18, 2011

On August 29 and 30, 2011, a county-level court in a Tibetan autonomous area of Sichuan province sentenced three monks to prison terms of 10, 11, and 13 years on charges of "intentional homicide" (PRC Criminal Law, Article 232) in connection with the March 16, 2011, self-immolation of a Kirti Monastery monk, China's state-run media reported. International media and advocacy group reports described the sentenced monks' intentions toward the severely burned monk in terms of rescue, protection, and shelter. If official reports are accurate in that the Ma'erkang County People's Court sentenced the monks, then it appears to be a violation of Article 20 of the PRC Criminal Procedure Law, which requires intermediate level courts to hear trials on criminal charges punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty—a category that includes "intentional homicide." A fourth monk faced charges linked to the incident but had not been sentenced as of October 18, 2011. For more information on the aftermath of the self-immolation at Kirti Monastery, located in Aba (Ngaba) county, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (T&QAP), see an August 17 CECC analysis.

According to an official media report (Xinhua, 29 August 11, reprinted in China Daily), on August 29 the Ma'erkang (Barkham) County People's Court, located in the capital of Aba prefecture, sentenced a Kirti monk named "Drongdru" to 11 years' imprisonment for "intentional homicide" because he allegedly "hid the injured monk and prevented emergency treatment." The verdict, according to the report, asserted that an 11-hour delay in providing emergency medical treatment caused the death of Rigzin Phuntsog (or Phuntsog, according to international media and advocacy group reports). None of the official reports observed by the Commission provided information about evidence proving that Drongdru intended to murder Phuntsog. International media and advocacy groups citing local sources reported in March that when security officials arrived and extinguished the flames burning Phuntsog, they kicked, beat, and threw objects at him (Phayul, 16 March 11; Radio Free Asia (RFA), 17 March 11; International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), 17 March 11). Reports described the intent of Kirti monks and other Tibetans who took the severely injured monk back to the monastery in terms of rescue (RFA, 16 March 11), protection (Phayul, 16 March 11), and shelter (ICT, 11 April 11). The August 29 Xinhua report did not provide information about the legal proceedings against Drongdru or his access to legal counsel, but asserted that he pleaded guilty and would not appeal the verdict.

On August 30, the same county-level court sentenced monks referred to as "Tsering Tenzin" and "Tenchum" to 13 years and 10 years in prison respectively for the "intentional homicide" of Phuntsog (Xinhua, 31 August 11, reprinted in China Daily). According to the report, the court found that the two monks "plotted, instigated and assisted in the self-immolation" of Phuntsog. The same article noted that a fourth monk, "Dorje," would also face criminal prosecution linked to Phuntsog's death. The report provided no information on the evidence against Tsering Tenzin and Tenchum, the legal proceedings against them, or their access to legal counsel, but alleged that both monks had "confessed their guilt." According to an advocacy group report (ICT, 31 August 11), after security officials detained the two monks in March, authorities did not inform their families of their whereabouts or the legal proceedings against them until August 28—two days prior to sentencing. The ICT report did not use the names "Tsering Tenzin" or "Tenchum" and stated that both monks have the same name: "Losang Tenzin" (or Lobsang Tenzin). The families "were given no opportunity" to retain a defense lawyer, the report said, but it is not clear what, if anything, a newly retained lawyer could have accomplished two days prior to sentencing. RFA (30 August 11) referred to the monk sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment as "Tenzin Gyamo-Kha" (instead of Tsering Tenzin) and reported that he "rejected the charges."

According to PRC law, the trials of the monks on charges of "intentional homicide" should not have been heard before a county-level court—instead, the trial should have been heard before the Aba T&QAP Intermediate People's Court. Article 20(2) of the Criminal Procedure Law states, "The Intermediate People's Courts shall have jurisdiction as courts of first instance over . . . ordinary criminal cases punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty." Article 232 of the Criminal Law states, "Whoever intentionally commits homicide shall be sentenced to death, life imprisonment or fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 10 years; if the circumstances are relatively minor, he shall be sentenced to fixed-term imprisonment of not less than 3 years but not more than 10 years." Official media reports have provided no information on why trials on charges punishable by the death penalty or life imprisonment were heard before a county-level court. An additional unusual aspect of the trials is that the county court that reportedly tried the cases was not the county court with jurisdiction over the site where the alleged crimes were committed: Kirti Monastery is in Aba, not Ma'erkang, county. The Ma'erkang County People's Court is located in the prefectural capital, along with the Aba T&QAP Intermediate People's Court.

China's state-run media and international media and advocacy groups have provided varying names for the three monks, including those listed below.

  • Drongdru, sentenced on August 29 to 11 years' imprisonment (Xinhua, 29 August 11, reprinted in China Daily): possibly Zhongzhou (Xinhua, 22 April 11, translated in OSC, 24 April 11); Lobsang Tsondru (RFA, 29 August 11); Tsundue (Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), 29 August 11).
  • Tsering Tenzin, sentenced on August 30 to 13 years' imprisonment (Xinhua, 31 August 11, reprinted in China Daily): possibly Zerang Zhade (Xinhua, 22 April 11, translated in OSC, 24 April 11); Lobsang Tenzin and Tsering Gyamo-kha (RFA, 30 August 11); Tsering Tamding (TCHRD, 30 August 11).
  • Tenchum, sentenced on August 30 to 10 years' imprisonment (Xinhua, 31 August 11, reprinted in China Daily): possibly Ladan (Xinhua, 22 April 11, translated in OSC, 24 April 11); Lobsang Tenzin and Nagten (RFA, 30 August 11); Tenzin (TCHRD, 30 August 11). RFA, like ICT (31 August 11), reported that both monks sentenced on August 30 are named Lobsang Tenzin. A conflated form of Lobsang Tenzin can be "Loten," similar to "Ladan."

For more information on religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists in China, see a previous CECC analysis titled "Tibetan Buddhist Affairs Regulations Taking Effect in Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures." See sections on religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists in the Commission's 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006 Annual Reports.