A Chinese court has convicted eight Tibetans 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. Both were charged with murder.
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 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.
In a separate report, Xinhua said a county court in Gannan prefecture in Gansu province sentenced six ethnic Tibetans to between three and 12 years in prison for their roles in the self-immolation of a local resident in October.
Call for religious freedom
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.
At a daily briefing Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Lorangs "pushed innocent people onto the road of self-immolations and the road of no return" to further what the government says is the Dalai Lama's goal to split Tibet from China.
"We hope through the sentencing of these cases, the international community will be able to clearly see the evil and malicious methods used by the Dalai clique in the self-immolations and condemn their crimes," Hong said.
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.
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.