BEIJINGA Chinese court convicted two Tibetan men of murder and handed out harsh sentences Thursday over accusations they incited others to self-immolate, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
The court in Aba prefecture in the southwestern province of Sichuan sentenced Lorang Konchok, 40, to death with a two-year reprieve and gave his nephew Lorang Tsering, 31, a 10-year prison sentence, for their roles in encouraging eight people to self-immolate last year, three of whom died from their burns, Xinhua said.
Suspended death sentences are usually commuted to life in prison. Calls to the court rang unanswered Thursday.
The case is the first known public prosecution of self-immolations and a further sign that Beijing is responding to the increasing number of fiery protests by criminalizing both the protesters and their friends and sympathizers. The convictions also appear aimed at shoring up Beijing's claims that such acts are instigated by outsiders with ulterior motives, rather than genuine protests.
China maintains that it protects Tibetans' rights and that the region has enjoyed "leap-frog" economic development in recent decades. Beijing has increasingly sought to crack down on the protests, which it says are instigated from abroad by the Dalai Lama and his supporters to put pressure on the Chinese government.
Nearly 100 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people have set themselves on fire since 2009, usually after calling for religious freedom and the return of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Authorities initially responded to the protests by flooding Tibetan areas with security forces to seal them off and prevent information from getting out. With those efforts doing little to stop or slow the protests, Beijing now appears to be seeking to weaken sympathy for them by portraying them as misguided and criminal.
Earlier this month, Xinhua reported that police in Qinghai province arrested a Tibetan monk who attempted to self-immolate last November and another Tibetan man who allegedly encouraged him. The men were arrested on charges of jeopardizing public safety and murder.
In Aba, Xinhua said Lorang Konchok met with one self-immolator on the day before he set himself on fire. It said he recorded the man's personal information, took his photos and promised to spread word of his self-immolation overseas while conveying his last words to his family.
Xinhua said five other people goaded by the pair to self-immolate did not do so, either because they changed their minds or because police intervened.