Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language activist and entrepreneur, was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting separatism” on May 22, 2018. These charges were a consequence of his peaceful advocacy for Tibetan language rights. After appearing in a New York Times article and documentary in November 2015, in which he advocated for the use of the Tibetan language in both government offices and in education, Tashi was secretly detained on Jan 27, 2016. His family was notified on March 24, 2016, despite a Chinese law that requires families of detainees to be informed about the detention within 24 hours. Tashi officially stood trial on January 4, 2018, after having spent two years in detention. On May 22, 2018, Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years in jail for “inciting separatism” based on a New York Times documentary and article he appeared in.
Tashi began advocating for Tibetan language rights after he was unable to find any language classes for his two nieces in Yushu prefecture (Tibetan: Gyegu). Despite being a predominantly Tibetan populated area of China, Yushu lies outside the official Tibet Autonomous Region. Though the Yushu community is largely Tibetan, government officials have outlawed the teaching of the Tibetan language to lay people in both monasteries and private schools and restricted the teaching of Tibetan language in public schools. Assimilation tactics, such as restricting the teaching of the language of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans, are used by Chinese authorities to ensure that Chinese is the dominant language spoken. Though the linguistic rights of ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, are explicitly protected by both China’s Constitution and China’s Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, these assimilation tactics have continued to be used throughout Chinese provinces.
In response to these restrictions, Mr. Tashi attempted to file a lawsuit against Chinese authorities to restore the use of Tibetan language in Yushu. In November of 2015, Tashi was interviewed by the New York Times, which featured him in a short documentary video as well an article in regards to his stance on Tibetan language rights. These interviews have been used as evidence against Tashi. Additionally, Tashi ran a microblog which chronicled his Tibetan language advocacy.
Tashi was not given a court date and was initially held incommunicado. Tashi was ultimately detained for almost two years before standing on trial on Jan 4, 2018. Tashi had only limited access to a lawyer during this time. During the trial, which lasted only one day, Tashi made it clear that he did not advocate for the Tibetan independence, but rather merely wanted to exercise the language rights guaranteed under Chinese law. Journalists and governments who wished to attend the trial were denied entry and Wangchuk was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison.
February 2019: Lin Qilei, Tashi’s lawyer, says that Tashi was denied access to both his lawyer and family. According to Lin, his request to visit his client in January 2019 was rejected due to ‘the political and sensitive nature of the case.’ He indicates that although Tashi’s family might have been able to visit him, they might be under pressure from the government to refrain from speaking publicly about their visits. He further states that the conditions under which Tashi is held and how he is being treated are unclear, however, it has been reported that Tashi was subjected to torture.
June 6, 2018: A group of six United Nations Special Rapporteurs condemn the outcome of the case stating: “We are gravely concerned about the sentencing of Mr. Tashi Wangchuk, and the sanctioning of his right to freely express his opinion about the human rights of the Tibetan minority of China.”
June 1, 2018: Six United Nations Special Rapporteurs, working on issues including racial discrimination, arbitrary detention, and minority rights, issued a statement expressing their concerns over the decision and calling for his immediate release.
May 22, 2018: Tashi Wangchuk is found guilty of inciting separatism and is sentenced to five years in prison. He will be due for early release in 2021 as the prison sentence will start from the date of his arrest.
Jan 4, 2018: Tashi Wangchuk is put before the court after being detained for two years. Tashi states that he was not inciting separatism but only wanted to exercise his right to advocate for the Tibetan language education. The court rules that the verdict will be given at a later date.
July 2018: Tashi Wangchuk is awarded the Tenzin Delek Rinpoche Medal of Courage, which is given annually.
March 24, 2016: His family only learns of his detention, almost two months after his arrest, despite Chinese law that states a notice must be given the family of the detainee within 24 hours. The authorities charged Tashi with inciting separatism, a charge that can result in 15 years in prison. A court date is not given for him to dispute the charges.
Jan 27, 2016: A few months after his interview, Tashi Wangchuk is secretly and illegally detained in Yushu, China. Tashi Wangchuk is illegally detained in Yushu, a town located in the Qinghai Province in western China.
November 28, 2015: Tashi Wangchuk appears in a New York Times documentary and an article regarding Tibetan language rights.
FREE EXPRESSION IN CHINA
In recent years, addressing the dire situation for free expression in China has been one of PEN America’s signature campaigns. With the world’s largest population, and with increased economic and political heft, China’s extensive censorship apparatus limits speech both within and outside its borders. Although new digital platforms have expanded the means of expression, they have also provided more opportunities for repression: in China, even a simple Tweet can land its author in jail. Since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013, he has overseen an extensive crackdown on free speech, implementing additional laws and censorship controls on the Internet, media, and publishers. In addition, individual Chinese writers, journalists, and creative artists have been censored, harassed, imprisoned, and even disappeared after they speak out about sensitive topics such as the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, corruption, and the lack of democratic reform. Several dozens are currently behind bars because of their writings or creative expression. Read more about freedom of expression in China here.
IN THEIR WORDS
“Our people’s culture is fading and being wiped out”- Tashi Wangchuk from a New York Times article titled “Tibetans Fight to Salvage Fading Culture in China”