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Authorities free 3 Tibetans jailed for running ‘illegal’ land rights group

Authorities in China’s Qinghai province have released three of the nine Tibetans who received prison terms in 2018 for running an “illegal organization” promoting land rights. Three more from the group are due to be released in June, according to Tibetan sources in exile.

Sonam Gyal and two others, who were not immediately identified, completed their terms and were freed earlier this year, a source living in India told RFA’s Tibetan Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“In January this year, Sonam Gyal and two others were released after serving their prison term,” said the source.

“Tashi Tsering and two others are scheduled to be released in June, also after completing their prison terms,” the source added. The names of the other two who are expected to be freed are also unconfirmed.

While the source said that the terms of the second trio are set to expire in June, “it is also uncertain if [they] will be released accordingly.”

According to the source, the remaining three had their cases “sent back for retrial and were sentenced to seven years again.”

“The prison time they had already served until now was invalidated,” they said.

In April 2019, RFA reported that the nine Tibetans, all residents of Horgyal village in Qinghai’s Rebgong (in Chinese, Tongren) county, were handed terms of from three to seven years by the County People’s Court for running an “illegal organization,” citing information from the Dharamsala, India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD).

Authorities had additionally accused the men — Gendun Soepa, Drukbum Tsering, Bende Dorje, Tashi Tsering, Sonam Gyal, Dargye, Shawo Tsering, Khajam Gyal and Choesang — of usurping the duties of already established village committees, “extortion,” and “gathering people to disturb social order,” the group said at the time.

Detained in July 2018, the nine men were formally arrested in August, and were serving their sentences at a large prison facility in Rebgong, a second Tibetan source in exile told RFA.

“Though the prison is very close to Horgyal village, their families and relatives were never allowed to meet them over the last several years,” said the source, who also declined to be named.

“Sonam Gyal’s health was not in a good state for a long time while in prison, but we don’t know much about his current health status, even though he is released. … People in the region were all too scared to talk about it and tried to avoid the conversation.”

The second source said that the health conditions of the six still in prison are also uncertain.

Petition to reclaim land

In a petition signed on Feb, 21, 2017, the nine, part of a larger group of 24, had mobilized village support to demand the return of Horgyal village land handed over for use by three brick factories in exchange for lease payments to the village that ended when the works were closed down by government order in 2011.

For the next seven years, authorities compensated the factories annually for their loss of business, though payments to the Horgyal village government then stopped, TCHRD said in its statement at the time of their sentencing, adding that villagers had called since then for the land’s return.

Two years before, a Tibetan monastery in Rebgong had appealed for the return of property formerly leased to a teacher’s college but seized by local officials as the college moved to a new location, Tibetan sources told RFA in an earlier report.

The property, comprising one third of the total estate of Rongwo monastery, was confiscated in 2016, and monks had petitioned ever since for its return, sources said.

Chinese development projects in Tibetan areas have led to frequent standoffs with Tibetans, who accuse Chinese firms and local officials of improperly seizing land and disrupting the lives of local people.

Many projects result in violent suppression, the detention of protest organizers, and intense pressure on the local population to comply with the government’s wishes.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.