By: Emma Graham-Harrison
BEIJING (REUTERS).- A leading Tibetan collector of antiquities has been in detention nearly five months, his lawyer said Tuesday, and faces charges dating back over a decade that critics fear may be politically motivated.
Karma Samdup was due to face trial Tuesday for excavating and robbing ancient tombs -- a charge brought and dropped in 1998 -- but lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said he arrived at the court to find the hearing was postponed indefinitely.
The philanthropist was arrested in southwestern Chengdu city in early January and taken to northwestern Xinjiang region for trial as that is where the charges originated. Pu said he did not know why they had resurfaced after so long.
"He really wasn't expecting it. This case was many years ago and at that time the Xinjiang police had already made a decision recognizing Karma Samdup was not guilty and the grave robbers (who were)...have already been punished," Pu said by telephone.
Around 40, Karma Samdup is a prominent businessman.
"He is currently setting up a museum of Tibetan culture, and he is the person with the largest private collection in the world of Tibetan art and artefacts," Beijing-based Tibetan writer and activist Woeser said in a blog posting about the case.
Several artists and intellectuals have been detained or have disappeared in recent months in what activists say amounts to the broadest suppression of Tibetan culture and expression for years.
The unexpected charges against a man apparently in good official standing will do little to improve ethnic relations in Tibetan areas, where tension has often been high since 2008.
In March that year, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, protests led by Buddhist monks against Chinese rule gave way to rioting that killed at least 19. Waves of protests followed and overseas groups say more than 200 were killed in a subsequent crackdown.
"Until recently most of the Tibetans who ran afoul of the system were monks, nuns and street protesters," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University.
"But now we see writers, village environmentalists, and leading entrepreneurs becoming targets."
Pu said Karma Samdup, who could face up to 10 years in prison, was sustained by his Buddhist faith, but had lost more than 20 kg (44 pounds).
China's foreign ministry declined comment, saying it was unaware of the case. Authorities in Xinjiang could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Chinese state's relationship with even those members of minorities it promotes as models of success can be unstable.
The most prominent activist among exiled Uighurs, the Turkic and largely Muslim people who once dominated Xinjiang region, is a businesswoman who was once one of the region's richest and an adviser to the central government.
Rebiya Kadeer is now denounced by Beijing as a separatist who instigated deadly rioting in her home region last summer. She denies the accusations, saying she wants only peaceful change.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)