Chinese authorities have commuted the death sentence of a Tibetan spiritual leader, ordering him instead to spend the rest of his life in prison. His reprieve follows an outcry from overseas Tibet advocates and human rights groups.
In 2002, a Chinese court found Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche guilty of involvement in a series of fatal bombings earlier that year, and of inciting separatist activities. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was then postponed for two years.
Upon the expiration of his suspended sentence late last year, Chinese officials suggested they might go ahead with the execution. It was to have taken place last month.
But a court in southwestern Sichuan province decided to commute the sentence, saying the monk had obeyed certain conditions that were not disclosed. Officials say he confessed to the bombing, a claim human rights advocates say they do not believe.
Tenzin Deleg, who is widely respected among Tibetan Buddhists, has said he was wrongly accused.
Anne Callahan, manager of the Free Tibet campaign in Britain, says Communist officials targeted the spiritual leader because they viewed his vast following as a threat to their authority among the large community of ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan province.
She says her group believes the real reason for the reprieve of the death sentence was the international pressure brought on Beijing by governments and private organizations.
"The reality is that his case generated a whole international campaign on his behalf and has actually highlighted the degree of religious repression in Sichuan now," she said.
The reprieve came exactly two years after the execution of another man, Lobsang Dhondup, who was tried and convicted along with Tenzin Delek for the 2002 bombings.
The Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile, along with several human rights groups, had called for the sentence to be reversed.
The United States expressed serious concern about the monk's closed-door trial, saying Chinese authorities failed to provide clear and convincing evidence of guilt. The issue came up during visits to Beijing by Secretary of State Powell and other high-ranking Bush Administration officials.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing had no immediate comment following the news of the court's decision.