Six Buddhist monks were among 30 people sentenced by a Chinese court Tuesday to jail terms ranging from three years to life for taking part in deadly riots in Tibet.
The punishments were the first to be meted out by a Chinese court against Tibetans accused of taking part in a frenzy of assaults, burning, looting and vandalism mainly targeting Han Chinese and their businesses in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and nearby areas between March 14-16.
The violence and subsequent government crackdown drew worldwide attention to China's human rights record and its rule in Tibet ahead of the Beijing Olympics. Celebrations marking 100 days to the start of the games take place Wednesday.
The sentences were announced during two sessions of a one-day trial at the Intermediate People's Court of Lhasa, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. China Central Television's evening newscast showed the convicts being led out by police with bowed heads in front of a packed courtroom.
Xinhua said three men received life sentences, including a Buddhist monk identified as Basang who allegedly led 10 people, including five other monks, to destroy local government offices, burn down shops and attack policemen.
Two of Basang's alleged monk accomplices were sentenced to 20 years, and the other three to 15 years in jail.
Soi'nam Cering, a driver for a Lhasa real estate company, was sentenced to life in jail for joining in the mobs that burned vehicles, smashed police stations and assaulted firefighters during the riot, Xinhua said.
The third man to receive a life sentence was a 30-year-old businessman who was identified only by his last name, Cering, Xinhua said. The agency reported that he was convicted of inciting others to commit arson and looting shops and vehicles during riots in his home county of Lingzhou, about 40 miles east of Lhasa, on March 15 and 16.
CCTV said seven people were sentenced to about 15 years in prison, and the other 20 received sentences of between three to 14 years. The charges included arson, robbery, interruption of law enforcement, and theft, it said.
China's resolve on display
The quick trials and their prominent coverage by state media signaled China's resolve in putting a firm lid on domestic Tibetan dissent ahead of the Summer Games.
"The party has a long tradition of carrying out speeded up trials with minimum forms of process for defendants whenever it wants to send a strong message to local people," said Robbie Barnett, an expert in modern Tibet at Columbia University.
Such trials originated in China in the early 1980s in so-called "Strike Hard" campaigns, intended to speed up prosecutions for crimes considered at threat to social stability, he said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu defended the judicial process, saying during a regular press briefing Tuesday that the relevant authorities would handle the Tibetan lawbreakers "according to the law in a fair and just way."
Following weeks of international pressure by the U.S. and the European Union, Beijing has also moved to tamp down tensions diplomatically. The government announced last week that it would be willing to begin talks with representatives to the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet whom Beijing has blamed for fomenting the unrest.
Jiang said "specifics of the contact and consultation have still yet to be further discussed."
The gesture comes after rights groups and pro-Tibetan supporters outside China protested against the Olympic torch relay at several stops around the world, resulting in massive disruptions and clashes with pro-China groups in some cities.
Tibetan monastery reopened
On Monday, Tibetan authorities announced the reopening of one of Tibet's main monasteries, the Sera, which was closed after the riots, something officials had said would happen once investigators determined if any monks took part in the unrest.
China has said 22 people died in the riots; Tibet's government-in-exile said Tuesday it believes at least 203 Tibetans were killed in the ensuing crackdown.
The estimate was compiled from the government-in-exile's own sources, Tibetan exile groups and official Chinese media. It was impossible to independently verify the information.
The protests, initially led by Buddhist monks, started peacefully on March 10, the anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. They became violent four days later as Tibetans attacked cars and shops run by Han Chinese, China's majority ethnic group.