China sentences two men to death in killing of Tibetan religious leader

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has sentenced two men to death for the 2013 killing of a prominent Tibetan religious leader, state media said, in what had been one of Tibet's most closely watched murder cases. Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who lived in exile in Scotland and became a British citizen, was among the first spiritual leaders to teach Tibetan Buddhism to followers in the West. He, his nephew and his driver were killed in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu in October 2013 over what police had said was a financial dispute. One of those sentenced was Thubten Kunsal, who had been an artist at Akong Rinpoche's monastery in Britain between 2002 and 2011, the Chengdu intermediate court said in a statement carried by the official Xinhua news agency on Sunday. He and another man, Tsering Paljor, were given the death sentence for stabbing the three men to death in a confrontation at the monk's Chengdu home over 2.7 million yuan ($410,000) in wages that Thubten Kunsal said he was owed. A third man was given three years in prison for hiding the knives used in the killings. Questions surrounding the murders had underscored the distrust that many Tibetans have of the Chinese government, which has ruled Tibet with an iron first since "peacefully liberating" it in 1950. Analysts have said that among exiled Tibetans, there was a widespread assumption that there must have been a political plot behind the crime, though there was no evidence for that. Thubten Kunsal and Tsering Paljor had admitted to involvement in the crime, according to earlier statements by their lawyer, but had argued the deaths were not intentional. "The defendants' methods were ruthless, the details extremely malicious, and the result extremely serious," the court said in the statement. Lawyers for the three men could not be reached after the sentencing, but the court said Thubten Kunsal and Tsering Paljor would appeal. The third man had not decided whether to appeal, it said. Akong Rinpoche was one of the few Tibetan religious leaders who succeeded at balancing the interests of the Chinese government and Tibetans, and he was revered by Tibetans in China for his work with charities and in promoting education. The Samye Ling monastery, founded by Akong Rinpoche in Scotland, did not mention the case on its website and could not be reached immediately for comment. (Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)