By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Tibetans in China have pleaded guilty to involvement in the death of a prominent religious leader and two other people, a lawyer representing the victims' families said on Friday, in Tibet's most closely watched murder case in decades.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche was among the first religious leaders to teach Tibetan Buddhism to followers in the West. He was killed in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu with his nephew and another Tibetan last October.
They were stabbed to death by three Tibetan men over a financial dispute, Chengdu police said.
"They have admitted to the basic facts of the court's allegations," lawyer Xiang Chaoyang said of the three defendants.
Xiang, who is representing the families of the three victims, said the three defendants had disagreed with the court on the nature of the crime.
"They mainly wanted to say it wasn't intentional," he said.
The defendants' lawyer was not available for comment and telephone calls to the Chengdu court went unanswered.
Akong Rinpoche, who lived in exile in Scotland and became a British citizen, was one of the few Tibetan religious leaders who succeeded at balancing the interests of the Chinese government and Tibetans.
He was especially revered by Tibetans in China for his work with charities and in promoting education at the grassroots level, said Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibet studies at Columbia University.
"Among exiles and many others, this is a major case because of the widespread assumption that there must have been a religious or political plot of some kind behind the murders," Barnett said.
"So people will be watching carefully to see if there's been a thorough investigation and a reasonably open trial."
The questions surrounding Akong Rinpoche's death underscore the distrust that many Tibetans have of the Chinese government.
Many Tibetans have protested against Chinese rule in their homeland, which has been ruled by Beijing since 1950, when Communist troops marched in and announced its "peaceful liberation".
Xiang said that the two-day trial, which ended on Thursday, was public and the defendants' lawyer did not dispute the written testimony that was provided during the trial. He said the verdict would come later.
Xiang said the three defendants had argued that the stabbing occurred in a clash with Akong Rinpoche because they had demanded payment for work they had done.
Two of the defendants were changed with intentional homicide and they had admitted to stabbing Akong Rinpoche, Xiang said. The third pleaded guilty to a charge of "shielding and covering up", he said.
If convicted, the first two could both face the death penalty, Xiang said. The third faces up to three years in prison.
After Akong Rinpoche's death, Chinese authorities had warned people in regions where Tibetans live not to discuss the case, said Tsering Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer.
"Perhaps it is the fear that this could spark something else," Woeser said. "But now we don't know anything and we would very much like to know the truth."
The British embassy in Beijing said a consular official attended the trial.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)