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55 Tibetans reportedly imprisoned for riots

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BEIJING — Fifty-five Tibetans have received prison sentences for their actions in the March 14 ethnic riot that engulfed Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region in western China, according to a senior Chinese official quoted Wednesday by Xinhua, the state news agency.

The report was the first by an official news source stating the number of sentences handed down after the riot, which erupted days after monks staged peaceful protests in Lhasa.

The prison sentences range from three years to life, Xinhua reported.

The report in Xinhua was based on comments made Tuesday by Baema Cewang, vice chairman of the Tibet regional government, when he met with Michael Andrew Johnson, a visiting member of the Australian House of Representatives.

Xinhua did not give details of how the sentences were handed down or what sort of trial the prisoners had received, if any.

The report by Xinhua came as envoys of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans, met in Beijing with Chinese officials to discuss Tibet policies and the status of the Dalai Lama, who has not been allowed to return to Tibet since fleeing to India in 1959. The Dalai Lama has called for autonomy in Tibetan regions of China and has not advocated outright independence. But he is facing growing pressure from younger Tibetans to take a more aggressive stand since the Chinese government has given no substantive concessions.

News agencies in China had reported that as of April 29, 30 people had been convicted of arson, robbery, disrupting public order and attacking government offices, among other crimes related to the riot, which was the worst outburst of ethnic violence in China in recent years. It was unclear whether any or all of these people were included in the 55 who were reported to have received prison sentences.

The riot involved Tibetans attacking Han Chinese living and working in Lhasa, a high-altitude city on a desert plateau that has drawn many Han settlers in recent years because of financial incentives put in place by Chinese officials.

The Chinese government has actively encouraged Han migration to ethnic minority regions in western China, particularly Tibet and Xinjiang, and that in turn has led to rising tensions between locals and the Han settlers who come seeking jobs and business opportunities.

The March riot led to a government crackdown in the autonomous region and other Tibetan areas in western China, particularly in the mountainous redoubts of Sichuan province.