(Reuters) - A court in China has handed down heavy sentences to a Tibetan monk and his nephew for inciting eight people to set themselves on fire in anti-Chinese protests, media said on Thursday, the first time punishment has been meted out over such protests.
Nearly 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest against Chinese rule since 2009, with most of them dying from their injuries.
Lorang Konchok, 40, was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in the Aba prefecture in Sichuan province, while his nephew, Losang Tsering, 31, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the Xinhua state news agency said.
In practice, a death sentence with a two-year reprieve is commuted to life imprisonment or reduced to a fixed-term later.
"The two incited and coerced eight people to self-immolate, resulting in three deaths," Xinhua said, citing the Intermediate People's Court in Aba prefecture.
Last December, Xinhua reported that Lorang Konchok, who was detained with his nephew in August, confessed to police that he had followed instructions from exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and his followers.
Lorang Konchok and his nephew passed on information about each self-immolation, including photographs, to overseas contacts belonging to a Tibetan independence organization with mobile telephones, Xinhua said.
China has repeatedly denounced the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan groups for fomenting the self-immolations.
"We hope that the international community can clearly see, via this judgment, the sinister, malicious methods used by the Dalai clique behind these acts and denounce their crimes," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
Beijing considers Nobel peace laureate the Dalai Lama, who fled from China in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, a violent separatist. The Dalai Lama says he is merely seeking greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
He has called on China to investigate the self-immolations. He has said he is not encouraging them has called them "understandable".
China has defended its iron-fisted rule in Tibet, saying the remote region suffered from dire poverty, brutal exploitation and economic stagnation until 1950, when Communist troops "peacefully liberated" it.
Tibetan areas in China have been largely closed to foreign reporters, making an independent assessment of the situation there impossible.
Chinese police arrested a Tibetan man last week for allegedly encouraging a monk to burn himself to death, as part of a new tactic to discourage suicide protests against Chinese rule.
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Robert Birsel)