Karma Samdrup was always the kind of Tibetan the Chinese government liked.
The antiques dealer's cultural and environmental preservation efforts won national awards and praise, and he stayed out of the region's highly charged politics. But next week he'll stand trial on what rights groups say is a trumped-up charge of grave-robbing amid the largest crackdown on Tibetan intellectuals since the Cultural Revolution.
China's government has grown increasingly sensitive about Tibet in the two years since rioting in the regional capital of Lhasa left 22 people dead and led to the most sustained Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in decades. Violent clashes and demonstrations swept Tibetan towns throughout western China, where occasional protests still continue, and security remains extremely tight.
Now, activist groups say a growing number of Tibetan intellectuals are coming under pressure from authorities determined to squelch all forms of dissent.
The government has always sought to silence critics of China's policies in Tibet, where a debate rages over how much autonomy, from religious freedom to outright independence, the Himalayan region deserves. But now officials appear to be expanding their reach and targeting even those previously considered allies or at least innocuous.
Karma Samdrup used to be in the latter group. State-run China Central Television named the stocky 42-year-old the country's philanthropist of the year in 2006 for "creating harmony between men and nature" with his environmental efforts in Tibetan areas. The same year, China's most prominent weekly newspaper, Southern Weekend, hailed him as the "Tibetan bead king" for his large collection of amulet beads.
The trouble began last year.
Karma Samdrup's two brothers, fellow environmentalists, were detained in August after accusing local officials in eastern Tibet of poaching endangered animals. They were accused of running an illegal environmental group and stirring up local protests, and they have not been released. Human Rights Watch says one brother, Chime Namgyal, is serving a 21-month sentence of re-education through labor for "harming national security."
On Jan. 3, plainclothes police detained Karma Samdrup as well. Officials later said he was being charged in the neighboring region of Xinjiang with "excavating ancient cultural relics and tombs" — a complaint that dates to 1998, when he was accused of dealing in items allegedly looted from archaeological sites. At the time, he was released on bail and police never pursued the charge.
"There's something unusual and disturbing about this case," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. "China has often been accused of using aggressive laws to silence critics, particularly in Tibet, but there's no record of this family of Tibetan environmentalists criticizing China's policies. In fact they've been widely written about in China as model citizens."
Barnett said the case could be a sign that the wide latitude public security officials in Tibet have been given to deal with suspected separatists is leading to abuses of power.
Karma Samdrup's supporters say the 1998 charge has been revived to punish him for trying to defend his two brothers.
"Absolutely fabricated," said a Chinese writer who closely follows Tibetan issues, Wang Lixiong.
But the case does have some worrying recent precedent.
Last month, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet published a report saying 31 Tibetans are now in prison "after reporting or expressing views, writing poetry or prose, or simply sharing information about Chinese government policies and their impact in Tibet today."
The report said it was the first time since the end of China's chaotic Cultural Revolution in 1976 that there has been such a targeted campaign against Tibetan singers, artists and writers who peacefully express their views.'
In another recent case, a writer named Tagyal — who was seen by fellow Tibetans as an "official intellectual" for usually toeing the Communist Party's line — was detained in April after signing an open letter critical of the Chinese government's earthquake relief efforts in a Tibetan region of Qinghai province.
'He looked like Genghis Khan'
Karma Samdrup's trial begins Tuesday in the Yanqi county court in Xinjiang. Theft of cultural relics in China carries a maximum penalty of life in prison or death, but his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said Friday he was not expecting such a harsh sentence.
Still, Pu is concerned. He said he's only been able to meet Karma Samdrup twice, most recently for about 40 minutes, while police watched and videotaped. The court would not let him photocopy the case file on Karma Samdrup.
"He was noticeably thinner — 20 to 30 kilograms (44 to 66 pounds) thinner," Pu said. "I could hardly recognize him. Before that, he looked like Genghis Khan. But he was in good spirits."
Karma Samdrup will plead not guilty, Pu said.
Calls to the court rang unanswered Friday.