A Tibetan language advocate is to be tried in a Chinese court for “inciting separatism,” a charge carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, his lawyer has said.

Tashi Wangchuk, 32, has been detained for nearly two years after being taken away from his home in January 2016, two months after the campaigner spoke to foreign media about his advocacy of Tibetan language education.

A supporter holds a banner calling on Tashi Wangchuk’s release. File Photo: Free Tibet Campaign.

Tashi’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun said his trial will begin on Thursday morning at the Yushu Intermediate Court in Qinghai province.

In his interview with the New York Times in 2015, Tashi expressed hope that Tibetans could study in their mother tongue. He was filmed trying to file a lawsuit against Qinghai officials over the lack of Tibetan language education and to get Chinese media to cover the issue.

“In politics, it’s said that if one nation wants to eliminate another nation, first they need to eliminate their spoken and written language,” Tashi told the paper at the time. “Normally we dare not discuss it, because now many phones are tapped and we don’t know where the surveillance devices are.”

The Times interview is a central piece of evidence in the charges against him, according to his lawyer.

Tashi has also posted on his microblog expressing concern that many Tibetan children are unable to speak their native language fluently, as well as the “gradual extinction” of Tibetan culture, according to NGO Amnesty International.

Despite stating that he was not calling for Tibetan independence, Tashi was charged with “inciting separatism.” He was held in secret detention for about three months before his family was informed that he was to be prosecuted.

International support

The European Union and Germany voiced concerns over China’s jailing of activists including Tashi at the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting last March.

Tashi Wangchuk
Protesters call for the release of Tashi Wangchuk. File Photo: Free Tibet Campaign.

The International Tibet Network, a coalition of Tibet-related NGOs, launched a petition urging 18 foreign ministers from countries such as Canada and Norway to call for for Tashi’s release. Rights groups such as Amnesty and US-based Human Rights Watch also asked China to drop the charges against Tashi.

“Cultural rights, which include the right to use one’s own language, are protected under both the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law,” Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement last January.

“Tashi Wangchuk has joined the ranks of those prosecuted in China by simply calling for rights to be respected and the law to be upheld.”

See also: Tibetan filmmaker flees China, joins family in US after 10-year ordeal

Last Monday, Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen fled to the US from China, after being jailed and deprived of political rights over the last ten years. He became a target after making a film in which ordinary Tibetans discussed their views on the Dalai Lama and criticised the Chinese government.

Dhondup Wangchen
Dhondup Wangchen (middle) is reunited with his family in the US. Photo: Filming for TIbet.

Human rights groups have long criticised the Chinese government for using the broad charges of “separatism” and “subversion” to target ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.

China has rejected accusations of human rights abuses against dissidents.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.