The devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked Nepal on April 25, 2015 also brought casualties and widespread damage to southwestern Tibet. Across the region there were 25 deaths, four missing, hundreds of injuries, and more than 47,500 people were displaced. Tingri, 150 miles southwest of Shigatse, was one of the hardest hit counties, where nearly 80 percent of housing was leveled by the quake.
Disaster relief efforts often produce tensions between government officials and those whose lives have been most affected. This appears to have been the case for Tingri county resident Garab, whose home was destroyed in the quake and whose apparent frustration with inaction by local officials led to a symbolic act of protest that put him in prison for two and half years.
According to the court verdict (translated below), Garab reportedly found an old PRC flag in the ruins of his former home weeks after the April quake. Prosecutors alleged that he burned holes in the flag and then used a marker to write “Free Tibet” on it. After allegedly hiding the flag under his mattress for several days, he discarded it along a path where some village children found it. Members of a work group stationed in the village noticed the children playing with the flag and reported the incident to local authorities. Garab was later taken into custody and charged with flag desecration under China’s Criminal Law.
Garab’s November 2015 trial appears to have been only the third criminal trial filed at the court that year, making it a rather rare event for the judges of the Tingri County People’s Court. Similar acts of protest elsewhere in China have resulted in lighter sentences. But, instead of ascribing Garab’s act of protest to high emotions in the wake of tremendous personal loss, the court showed little leniency—shaving only six-months off the maximum three-year prison sentence though Garab had confessed, expressed remorse, and had no prior police record.
The trial itself appeared perfunctory. While the verdict refers vaguely to forensic testimony, Garab’s confession seems to have been the prime piece of evidence linking him to the flag desecration. However, because his act of protest happened in an ethnic border region during a time of heightened tensions, local authorities’ need to preserve stability took priority.