A court in southwestern China has given heavy sentences to two ethnic Tibetans convicted of murder for "inciting" people to set themselves of fire, state media reported Thursday.
Self-immolation has become a dramatic and harrowing form of protest in recent years for ethnic Tibetans unhappy with Chinese rule.
Beijing has taken a tough line on the protesters and their associates, accusing the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, of fomenting unrest inside Chinese borders.
The court in Sichuan province on Thursday sentenced Lorang Konchok, a 40-year-old monk, to death with a two-year reprieve and stripped him of his political rights for life, the state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
It sentenced his nephew, Lorang Tsering, 31, to 10 years in prison, stripping him of his political rights for three years, the agency said.
The court -- in the prefecture of Aba, a Tibetan autonomous area in Sichuan -- convicted the two men of encouraging eight people to self-immolate, three of whom died as a result, Xinhua reported.
The other five people didn't go through with the act, either because they chose to abandon the plan or because police intervened, the court found, according to Xinhua.
Accusations against the Dalai Lama
Speaking at a regular news briefing in Beijing, Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Chinese authorities hoped that with the verdict Thursday, "the international community will be able to clearly see the evil, malicious methods of the Dalai clique in the self-immolations and condemn their crimes."
By December 2012, 95 Tibetans had set themselves on fire, with 28 self-immolations in November alone when China's political elite ushered in its next generation of leaders during its Communist Party Congress. At least 81 of the 95 self-immolators died, according to the International Tibet Network, a coalition of some 150 pro-Tibet groups.
Independently verifying the reported self-immolations is difficult because of Chinese restrictions on reporting from the restive areas, and the reluctance of local officials to comment on the accounts provided by foreign-based Tibetan advocacy groups.
Beijing rejects accusations of oppression, saying that under its rule, living standards have greatly improved for the Tibetan people. It makes centuries-old historical claims on the region.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising, has long denied China's assertion that he's seeking Tibetan independence. He says he wants only an autonomy that would offer protection for their traditional Buddhist culture.