Two men went on trial in the city of Chengdu in south-west China on Wednesday for the murder of three men including a leading Tibetan lama who made his home in Britain.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche , who set up the west's first Tibetan Buddhist centre in Scotland and later founded others across Europe, was stabbed to death in Chengdu in October last year along with his nephew, Loga, and his assistant, Chime Wangyal.
Tudeng Gusha, also known as Thubten Kunsal, and his nephew, Ciren Banyue, are accused of intentional homicide. Another nephew, Geni Jiangcuo, is charged with harbouring a criminal.
Friends of the victims who attended the trial at Chengdu intermediate people's court said the main defendant had not denied the charge, but claimed that the lama had owed him 2.7m yuan (£265,000) for his work as a sculptor. Ciren Banyue retracted an initial confession to police and said he played no part in the deaths, merely accompanying his uncle to the scene.
Akong Rinpoche, who was 73 at the time of his death, was recognised as an incarnate lama as a small child in Tibet and became abbot of the Dolma Lhakhang monastery.
He fled from Tibet following a failed uprising there against Chinese rule in 1959, taking British citizenship and co-founding the Samye Ling Buddhist retreat near Lockerbie in Scotland in the 1960s.
But he managed to remain on good terms with Chinese leaders – leading to criticism from some Tibetan exiles – and supported several health, educational and cultural projects in Tibet via the Rokpa charity that he founded.
He was on his annual trip to inspect the projects and arrange their funding, meaning that he would have had access to considerable sums of money, when he was killed at a flat in Chengdu.
Tudeng Gusha had spent five years living at Samye Ling in Scotland, and its London branch, making religious statues. Representatives of Samye Ling said he had demanded money from the lama immediately before the deaths and said they had provided Chinese police with documents and witness statements showing that the sculptor had agreed to work on a voluntary basis.
Akong Rinpoche's son and several representatives of his Buddhist foundation attended the hearing. One of them, Carlo Luyckx, said that the artist had denied signing a contract stating that he was working on a voluntary basis, but that the prosecution told the court the signature on the document had been verified.
Luyckx, deputy mayor of Brussels and president of Belgium's Buddhist Union, had known the lama for 42 years. He said that Akong Rinpoche's brother, who is the abbot of Samye Ling, and the Karmapa – the head of the Kagyu school of Buddhism to which the victims belonged – had both expressed their wish that the death penalty would not be imposed on the defendants if they are convicted.
"For us the idea of one death leading to another is abhorrent. We believe in compassion and forgiveness," added Gelong Thubten, who was the lama's personal assistant.
He said that the sculptor had never requested money while in the UK and that he had left Britain with no sign of bad feeling on either side.
"From the start it was understood that he would be given board and lodging [and an allowance], but never ever a salary. I'm a monk; we don't get salaries," he added.
"We hadn't heard from him for two years. It was totally shocking to us."
An employee called Mr Hu at the Chengdu Intermediate People's Court said the trial would last three days.