BEIJING • 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 south-western Chinese city of Chengdu in October 2013 over what the 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 flat over 2.7 million yuan (S$584,000) 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.
Akong Rinpoche was 73 at the time of his death. He fled from Tibet following a failed uprising there against Chinese rule in 1959, taking British citizenship, the Guardian reported. But he reportedly managed to maintain good ties with Chinese leaders.
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 in 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, co-founded by Akong Rinpoche in Scotland, did not mention the case on its website. After setting up the West's first Tibetan Buddhist centre in Scotland, he later founded others across Europe.