The trial of Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk for “inciting separatism” is an outrageous attempt to treat peaceful advocacy for linguistic and cultural rights as a dangerous crime, PEN America said today.

Tashi Wangchuk, an advocate for Tibetan-language education in Tibetan schools and for Tibetan-language use in government offices within Tibet, will go on trial on January 4, 2018, for “inciting separatism,” a charge that could result in Tashi being incarcerated for up to 15 years. Inciting separatism is categorized under China’s Criminal Law as a crime of “endangering national security.”

Tashi was originally taken into detention in January 2015, soon after attempting to file a lawsuit against local officials over the lack of Tibetan-language education, and after giving a set of interviews to The New York Times on the subject; during these interviews he explained that he did not support Tibetan independence but was instead concerned with preservation of Tibetan culture. In November 2016, PEN America noted that the charge against Tashi was part of a trend of harassment and jailing of news sources to foreign journalists by Chinese authorities. Tashi has spent almost two years in detention without trial. He was held in secret detention for almost the first two months of his time in prison, where he reportedly underwent repeated beatings.

Given that the conviction rate in China is commonly over ninety-nine percent and that China’s judiciary is subject to a variety of pressures and constraints on their independence, PEN America is particularly concerned that Tashi will not be offered a fair trial, nor afforded the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, especially given authorities’ assertion that this is a case of national security.

“This is an attack on Tibetan language and cultural rights, which authorities have dressed up as an issue of national security. The idea that peaceful advocacy for Tibetan language rights somehow constitutes “separatism” is absurd and offensive,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “We call on the arresting authorities to drop all charges against Tashi Wangchuk, who has not committed any crime, immediately, and to release him from custody.”

China’s Constitution, as well as its Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, explicitly protects the linguistic rights of ethnic minorities, including guarantees of the freedom of ethnic nationalities to use their own spoken and written language. China has also commitments under international law to safeguard minority language rights, including through Articles 29(c) and 30 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, and Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to both of which China is a signatory. PEN America and other observers have noted that charges of “separatism” are often wielded by the authorities against advocates from indigenous groups. A number of writers who promote Tibetan literature or the use of the Tibetan language, such as Kunchok Tsephel, or who have advocated for greater freedom for Tibetans, such as Shokjang, have been convicted and imprisoned on similar charges as those Tashi Wangchuk is facing. 

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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