Around a hundred Tibetans gathered outside Chuandong Prison in Chengdu, Sichuan, July 14 to hold a peaceful sit-in calling upon the Chinese authorities to release the body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to his family and monastery. The image shows the police gathering outside the main gate. Photo courtesy ICT.
Tibetan monk and political prisoner Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died Sunday July 12th in a Chinese prison. The circumstances around his death are unknown, Chinese authorities have refused to release his body to family members and thousands have gathered to protest. Tenzin suffered from a serious heart condition and he had recently been denied parole on medical grounds.
On Sunday, Tenzin Delek’s family was informed by Chinese police that he had passed away in a prison near Chengdu, Sichuan Province.The senior monk was imprisoned for alleged involvement in bombings that took place in Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province.
Chinese authorities’ failure to return the body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to his family and the monastic community is inhumane and violates China’s own new rule on the handling of deaths in prison, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
Earlier this month, Rinpoche’s family members were informed that they would be allowed visit him in the prison. No visitors had been allowed since November 2013. According to London-based Free Tibet, when they arrived at the prison, his sisters were repeatedly denied access to him. A promised meeting on July 12th did not take place and at around 11:00 pm (local time) on July 12th, prison authorities informed Rinpoche’s sisters, who were waiting outside the prison that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had died.
Tenzin Delek. Photo courtesy Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, had been serving a life sentence on charges of “terrorism and inciting separatism,” in proceedings that violated his right to a fair trial. He was arrested April 7th 2002, and then sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of “crimes of terror and incitement of separatism” in December 2002. He had no access to the lawyer his family appointed for him and no court documents about his case have since been released. He was was tried and sentenced to death with a two-year suspension in December 2002 for his alleged role in a bombing earlier that year in Chengdu’s Tianfu Square, though he consistently maintained his innocence. He was denied a lawyer of his choice, not allowed access to the evidence against him, and tried in secret. His alleged co-conspirator, Lobsang Dondrup, was tried at the same time, found guilty, and summarily executed in January 2003.
Following an international campaign, his death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment in January 2005. In a 2004 report, “Trials of a Monk,” Human Rights Watch found no credible evidence to support the charges laid against him. “The case of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a culmination of a decade-long effort by Chinese authorities to curb his efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism, his support for the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, and his work to develop Tibetan social and cultural institutions. His efforts had become a focal point for Tibetans struggling to retain their cultural identity in the face of China’s restrictive policies and its continuing persecution of individuals attempting to push the accepted boundaries of cultural and social expression,” Human Rights Watch has stated in a substantive report in 2010.
Foreign governments, United Nations officials, and numerous nongovernmental organizations had repeatedly called for his release since 2002.
“To have detained Tenzin Delek Rinpoche for peaceful activism, to have denied him adequate medical treatment, and to let him die in detention – this is the epitome of cruel and inhumane behavior,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Central government authorities should move swiftly to ensure his remains are returned to his family or community, and immediately allow an independent investigation into his death.”
His family requested the return of his body in order to perform funeral rites, but have not received his body or been given a reason by the authorities for withholding it. China’s new Rules on the Handling of Deaths in Prison require authorities to handle the bodies of ethnic minority prisoners “with respect to ethnic traditions.”
According to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) on Thursday July 16th, new information from Tibetan relatives of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in exile indicates that his two sisters have been under increasing pressure since news of his death was broken to the family on July 12th. The sisters were detained Thursday for around ten hours, according to the same sources, at the same prison as their brother had been held, when they refused to sign a document that was described to them as being the health record of their brother. The sisters were apparently told that they would not be able to keep a copy, and the information on the document was not clear. One of the sisters apparently fainted while in the prison, before the two women were allowed to leave.
In further news from the area, several groups of Tibetans were denied permission to see revered Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body when they arrived at the prison management office Wednesday. They were also refused answers to questions about how he died.
Torture, Deteriorating Health
Throughout his 13 years in detention, credible reports repeatedly emerged that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was being tortured and that he was in deteriorating health. Despite Sichuan provincial prison regulations that families be allowed to visit prisoners once a month, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s family members were only allowed one visit in November 2013.
In 2014 his family filed an application for medical parole but no reply was ever received. Governments and campaign groups have repeatedly called for his release because of his deteriorating health. China refused to grant him medical parole.
Thousands Protest, Are Met With Force from Chinese Authorities
As the news of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death spread on July 13, thousands of supporters converged outside local government offices in western Sichuan to demand the release of his body to his family or former monastery. Police reportedly beat a number of protestors and fired into the air to disperse the crowd. Tibetans in Tibet are protesting and demanding his family be able to carry out final Buddhist rites for Tenzin Delek. Protests have taken place in Nyagchu County where the Rinpoche used to live and outside the prison in Chengdu where he died.
Peaceful protests by Tibetans in this area in recent years have also been violently dispersed. China should uphold article 35 of its Constitution, which guarantees the right to peaceful freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Repeated appeals to the Chinese authorities for the release of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body have been rejected and his family have been told he will be cremated in prison and the ashes returned to them. Rinpoche’s sisters and several of the monks his monastery were ordered to go back to their hometown (Nyagchu County in southeast Tibet) without “causing any disturbance”.
On Tuesday July 14th, China violently suppressed a protest, and more than 20 Tibetan demonstrators taken to the hospital. According to ICT ”Chinese authorities responded to peaceful protests yesterday following the death of Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche by deploying armed police to fire tear-gas and use physical violence against Tibetans.” China’s security forces broke up a Tibetan demonstration by beating protesters, shooting in the air and deploying tear gas in Nyagchu County, according to Free Tibet.
A Tibetan protester admitted to hospital with severe injuries sustained during demonstrations against the Chinese government. Photo/Geshe Jamyang Nyima
On Wednesday, the Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala, India released photographs from Tibet of injuries sustained by protesters calling for the return of the body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. Security forces broke up a demonstration in his local community. The Central Tibetan Administration says that Tenzin ”died under mysterious circumstances.”
Initial information from Tibet indicated that the police had fired into the air to disperse more than 1,000 protesters in Nyagchu. Photographs from Chengdu – a city near Tibet in China’s Sichuan Province – show a sit-down protest outside the prison.
Despite reported heavy restrictions of movement over 100 Tibetans have travelled to Chuandong prison, Chinese city of Chengdu and on Wednesday held peaceful sit-in protest following two days of unsuccessful negotiations between the police and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s immediate family to release the body.
Tibetans holding a sit-in protest demanding the return of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body. Photo/ Geshe Jamyang Nyima
The situation outside the prison where Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body is ‘’really tense’’ according to Students for a Free Tibet. ‘’I fear for the safety of my family and friends who have travelled from our hometown to the prison in order to demand the authorities to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s body. It is our right that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, our teacher and leader, receives the final Tibetan Buddhist rites. But authorities are threatening to cremate his body inside the prison,” said Geshe Nyima, cousin of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche based in Dharamsala, India.
Tenzin Dolkar, Executive Director of Students for A Free Tibet, says: “We fear for the lives of over 100 Tibetans who have gathered outside the prison and are protesting Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death amid armed police. There is a high risk of a violent crackdown on the peaceful protesters by authorities as the situation could escalate at any time. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death is endemic for the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese government. An urgent intervention by world leaders is needed to protect the lives of Tibetans.”
According to relatives of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in exile, local monks and laypeople selected a group of representatives to speak to the township government. Not only did the local authorities refuse to speak to them, but the Tibetans who sought to engage in dialogue were beaten ‘with brutality’, according to one of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s relatives, who is in exile in India.
Demands for Action
According to Students for a Free Tibet, Chinese authorities are refusing to reveal the circumstances around his death or return his body to the family.
The US State Department issued a statement Tuesday calling for his body to be released to his family: ‘’We are saddened to learn that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who has been a political prisoner since 2002, has died in prison. We express our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and supporters. The United States had consistently urged China to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, most recently out of concern for his health. We hope Chinese authorities will investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding his death. We urge Chinese authorities to return his body to his family or to his monastery so that customary religious rituals can be properly performed.’’
Rights groups are calling for the international community to demand that China honor the wishes of the local community instead of responding with brutality to legitimate Tibetan protest.
At a hearing Wednesday in the U.S. Congress, lawmakers held a moment of silence and audience members held up pictures of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as strong statements remembering the Tibetan lama at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing on Tibet at the U.S. Congress were made. Sarah Sewall, the U.S. State Department’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, said she shared the “anger and sadness” of the Tibetan people and the US lawmakers over Tenzin Delek’s death. She said the “horrific self-immolations” of Tibetans in recent years were an expression of their desperation over the deteriorating situation in Tibet. She also elaborated on the four major priorities of her office namely resuming dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama; promoting Human Rights in Tibet; promoting religious freedom; and ensuring diplomatic and public access to Tibet and preservation of distinct culture, rich tradition and linguistic heritage of the Tibetan people.
Hollywood actor Richard Gere at the hearing on Tibet’s human rights situation at Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. Photo courtesy ICT.
Hollywood actor Richard Gere, an ardent advocate of the Tibetan cause and Chairman of International Campaign for Tibet, also gave a testimonial before the Commission, referring to Tulku Tenzin Delek’s death in prison as a “stark reminder of who we are dealing with here.”
Students for a Free Tibet has been protesting Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death worldwide and is mobilizing their more than 70.000 members for advocacy work targeting world leaders to work together and put pressure on the Chinese government to undertake an independent investigation into the suspicious circumstances of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death.
“Thousands of Tibetans inside Tibet continue to protest Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death, which has led to a violent crackdown by Chinese armed troops in the past two days. Tibetans and supporters are holding rallies outside Chinese Consulates and embassies worldwide. And we will not stop until justice is served for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his family. We call on world governments to strongly condemn the Chinese government for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s custodial death and demand an independent investigation into the suspicious circumstances of his death,” said Dorjee Tseten, Asia Director of Students for A Free Tibet.
The Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile based in Dharamshala on Thursday expressed its condolences: “We are deeply saddened by the untimely death of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. The Chinese government has repeatedly violated all universal human rights in Tibet,” the Tibetan Parliament said in a statement. The Parliament also urged the Chinese government to return the body of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to his family members and disciples, to allow them to arrange for his last rites according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Deaths in Chinese Custody
China’s refusal to hand over the bodies of political prisoners who have died in custody or following self-immolation protests is a consistent and recurring source of grief and anger for Tibetans, who are denied the opportunity to conduct funeral services. In this case, the prison is also preventing independent determination of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s cause of death as he was denied medical parole despite serious illnesses.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death in detention is disturbingly similar to that of rights activist Cao Shunli, who died in a Beijing military hospital in March 2014. Cao was in detention when she developed serious illnesses which were not adequately treated. Officials only sent her to a hospital when she fell into a coma, and she died shortly after. Her family and lawyers had raised concerns about her deteriorating health and repeatedly requested her release on medical parole that was never granted.
Human Rights Watch urged Chinese authorities to accept an independent, international investigation – with the participation of forensic and human rights experts from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – into Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s and Cao Shunli’s deaths in detention. China should also immediately allow a visit and investigation by the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, in light of the allegations of torture of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and in light of China’s forthcoming review under the Convention Against Torture (CAT).
Other prominent detained or imprisoned activists reported to be lacking adequate medical care include elderly journalist Gao Yu, who suffers from escalating heart pains; human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has diabetes and high blood pressure; Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, who has heart disease among other illnesses; and anti-corruption activist Liu Ping, who has had daily, undiagnosed diarrhea for two years while in prison.
“Many other peaceful activists in detention are reportedly unwell and are at risk,” said Richardson. “Chinese authorities can mitigate some of their self-inflicted damage by allowing an independent investigation into Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and Cao Shunli’s deaths – and pledging to follow its recommendations.”
Jails in Tibet are full of political prisoners. Many are serving long-term sentences for voicing their opinions on the desperate situation.