A Chinese court on Thursday sentenced a Tibetan man to death with a two-year reprieve, convicting him of “inciting” eight people to carry out self-immolation protests last year.

In the first major case involving self-immolation protests that have spread across Tibetan areas in recent months, Lorang Konchok (40), a monk in the Kirti monastery in the northwestern Sichuan province, was charged with “intentional homicide” for “inciting and coercing” eight people to set themselves on fire.

Three of them died, according to the verdict handed down by the Intermediate People’s Court of the Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Aba, a predominantly Tibetan area of the province, which has witnessed many of the at least 99 self-immolations seen in China since 2009.

While Konchok was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve — which is likely to be commuted to a life sentence — his 31-year-old nephew, Lorang Tsering, was handed down a 10-year jail term for assisting him, the court said.

The court said Konchok had “maintained long-term and close contact” with a monk named Santan based in Dharamsala, who, the court alleged, was part of a “Kirti monastery media liaison team” that helped incite protests and then spread information.

The trial, which opened on Monday, has been framed by the Chinese government and State media as evidence of an overseas “separatist plot” to undermine its rule. The verdict has been seen an indication that the government would hand down stiff sentences to anyone found spreading information about the continuing protests.

China’s claims of an overseas plot have, however, been strongly denied by the exiled Tibetan administration in Dharamsala, which has blamed restrictive Chinese policies for the spreading protests.

Self-immolations have been mainly reported in Tibetan areas in the Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces, with monks, nuns, farmers, and even young students setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese policies in recent months. Many of them called for the return of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to Tibet.

The latest protest —by some accounts the 99th self-immolation — was reported only on Tuesday, when Kunchok Kyab (26) set himself on fire near the Bora monastery in Gansu, according to overseas groups. While the protests began in Kirti monastery in 2009, they subsequently spread to even remote Tibetan counties in nearby Qinghai and Gansu and beyond monastery walls, where even ordinary Tibetans — from herders to students — have set themselves on fire.

A report of Monday’s court proceedings claimed that Santan, the monk in Dharamsala, had “asked Lorang Konchok to goad more people to self-immolate and collect and send information about self-immolation abroad”. It said Konchok “made 95 calls to various foreign numbers,

including Indian ones using a mobile phone from January to August in 2012”, adding that he had called his foreign contacts “after each of the five self-immolation cases happened in Aba”. The court claimed that three monks had died “under the influence of Lorang Konchok”.

They included two monks — Lorang Tsedrup (23) and Tsenam (19) — and a 19-year-old herdsman from Aba.

China has blamed the Dalai Lama for encouraging the protests. The Tibetan spiritual leader has strongly rejected the accusations, and has said he would welcome a fact-finding mission to investigate the cases. He said the Chinese government “must carry thorough research… and not pretend that nothing is wrong”, in an interview with The Hindu last year.

This week, the Chinese government appointed a new chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), who will head the regional government but ranks second to the Communist Party chief. The new chairman, Losang Jamcan, said he would take “a firm political stand and [act]

consistently to resolutely battle against the 14th Dalai Lama clique and unswervingly safeguarding the unification of the motherland and national unity”.