BEIJING (AP) — One of Tibet's richest businessmen has been sentenced to life in prison for helping exile groups, a human rights organization said Thursday, the latest case in a surprising crackdown on well-known Tibetans once praised by Chinese authorities.

Dorje Tashi was sentenced on June 26 in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, said Urgen Tenzin, director of the India-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Dorje Tashi, believed to be in his mid-30s, is the operator of the Yak Hotel, the most famous hotel in Lhasa. He met Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in 2005, two years after joining the ruling Communist Party.

"Tibetans like him, they are the super elite," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University. "The severity of the sentence and the exceptional importance of the prisoner are unprecedented."

China has not reported the prison sentence, which comes amid increased repression of Tibetan intellectuals after ethnic rioting in Lhasa in 2008 in which at least 22 people died.

A duty officer at the Lhasa Intermediate People's Court, reached by phone Thursday, said staff were out on holiday.

The general manager of the Yak Hotel, Wang Jiu, confirmed that Dorje Tashi was sentenced but would not comment further.

The crackdown is surprising because it includes high-profile Tibetans who were known for working within the system instead of opposing it. Dorje Tashi joined the ruling Communist Party in 2003, the state-run China Ethnic Press reported in March 2009.

The report praised Dorje Tashi's company, the Shenhu Group, for offering water and other support to security forces after the Lhasa rioting, and for having its more than 800 employees sign agreements "upholding the unity of the motherland and opposing the ethnic separatists."

"He is like an eagle above a snowy high plateau, leading the Shenhu Group to hover on the sky of history," the state media report said.

According to a Lhasa-based website, Tibet Commercial Web, Dorje Tashi has been a delegate to the national Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the government, and was named one of "10 outstanding youth of Tibet."

He was detained, however, in a security crackdown soon after the rioting.

With no word from the Chinese government, the exact charge against Dorje Tashi was not known. "He was charged with funding some outside Tibetan groups," Urgen Tenzin said.

Columbia University's Barnett, however, said the Tibetan exile community raises money from its own members or in the West, not from inside China.

"People who work within the system in China and Tibet, it would make no sense for them to risk everything to get involved in politics," he said.

It was not clear if Dorje Tashi has a lawyer, and his family could not be reached Thursday.

In another high-profile case in June, Karma Samdrup, a Tibetan environmentalist once praised by the government as a model philanthropist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of grave robbing and dealing in looted antiquities. His supporters said he was actually being punished for his activism.

In May, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet published a report saying 31 Tibetans are now in prison "after reporting or expressing views, writing poetry or prose, or simply sharing information about Chinese government policies and their impact in Tibet today."

It said it was the first time since the end of China's chaotic Cultural Revolution in 1976 that there has been such a targeted campaign against Tibetan singers, artists and writers who peacefully express their views.

"Many officials are taking advantage of the 'strike hard' period to take personal revenge and settle disputes," said Woeser, a Beijing-based poet and activist who like many Tibetans goes by only one name. "Some of them are linked to politics, some not."


Associated Press Writer Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.