Tibetans suspected of opposing the policies of the PRC in Tibet have been held as political prisoners and prisoners of conscience for lengthy periods, some for decades. A list of 108 political prisoners presented by the US government to China in October 1993 took nine months to elicit a response. China listed 51 as 'cannot be found' and did not even say where the acknowledged prisoners were being held. The charges against these people are often unknown and many dissidents, especially before 1987, were sentenced or executed without trial.
Between October 1987 and July 1989 only about a dozen Tibetan political prisoners were known to have been formally charged with criminal offences and tried by a court. The Chinese authorities, however, started to bring to trial scores of Tibetan political prisoners, the exact numbers of which are not clear, after a new policy was instigated in August 1989 (Defying; p.34).
According to Article 125 of the PRC Constitution, "the accused has the right of defence". However, there is no known case of a Tibetan receiving legal assistance prior to, or during, the hearing. It seems that normal judicial procedures have been abridged. The Chinese criminal justice system in Tibet also has no presumption of innocence. There is no known case of a Tibetan defendant accused of political crimes being acquitted (Defying; p.35).
The PRC Criminal Procedure Law states that all trials be public, except those dealing with state secrets, private individual matters or minors (Articles 8 and 11, PRC Criminal Procedural Law). In reality however, most trials in Tibet are held in secret or before a specially selected audience (Defying; p.34). It is very difficult to obtain first-hand accounts of political trials in Tibet. However, there is one recorded eyewitness report of a public trial of two monks from Ngarong Monastery, held in Rigong, March 1990. They were detained in Autumn 1989 after unfurling a Tibetan national flag in the street. Neither of the accused was represented. Nor were they given the chance to defend themselves. The monks were sentenced to one, and one and a half years imprisonment respectively, for counter-revolutionary crimes (Defying; p.35).
The average term of imprisonment since the trials began in 1989 seems to be six and a half years. There have been prison sentences of up to 19 years handed down to Tibetans found guilty of counter-revolutionary offences. There is growing speculation that Tibetan political prisoners have been executed, though no direct evidence of this since 1987 (Defying; p.36). Prisoner releases are often of older prisoners deemed to pose little threat. Other releases have police reporting conditions attached.