June 25, 2010 / 1:17 PM / 9 years ago

Leading Tibetan art collector gets 15 years in jail

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese court in the far western region of Xinjiang has sentenced a leading Tibetan collector of antiquities and environmentalist to 15 years in jail for robbing graves, his lawyer said on Friday.

Karma Samdup was sentenced on Thursday for excavating and robbing ancient tombs, a charge brought and dropped in 1998, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said.

“He is innocent. They did not provide any evidence. It is a miscarriage of justice,” Pu told Reuters by telephone.

The lawyer said that although Karma Samdup mentally was fine, he had been shocked by his client’s appearance.

“He looked terrible. He’s lost a lot of weight in jail and says he was treated terribly,” Pu said.

The philanthropist was arrested in southwestern Chengdu city in early January and taken to northwestern Xinjiang region for trial as that was where the charges originated.

He was also involved in a well-respected environmental group working to protect rivers on the Tibetan plateau and had been praised by the government for his work.

Pu said he did not know why the charges had resurfaced after so long.

“I think there are political reasons behind this,” he said, without elaborating.

Court officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Several artists and intellectuals have been detained or have disappeared in recent months in what activists say amounts to the broadest suppression of Tibetan culture and expression for years.

The unexpected sentence against a man apparently in good official standing will do little to improve ethnic relations in Tibetan areas, where tension has often been high since 2008.

In March that year, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, protests led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule gave way to rioting that killed at least 19. Waves of protests followed and overseas groups say more than 200 were killed in a subsequent crackdown.

The Chinese state’s relationship with even those members of minorities it promotes as models of success can be unstable.

The most prominent activist among exiled Uighurs, the Turkic and largely Muslim people who once dominated Xinjiang region, is a businesswoman who was formerly one of the region’s richest people and an adviser to the central government.

Rebiya Kadeer is now denounced by Beijing as a separatist who instigated deadly rioting in her home region last summer. She denies the accusations, saying she wants only peaceful change.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski

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