In a world where law and order are given paramount importance with regards to governing nations, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to deny and restrict basic rights and fundamental freedoms to millions of Tibetans. By characterising the Tibetan culture and religious beliefs as a “threat to state security” and “violations of the state’s interest”, the PRC has arbitrarily detained and unfairly sentenced thousands of Tibetans including laypersons, farmers, monks, nuns, traders and even juvenile protestors.
Tibetans are commonly charged of ‘leaking state secrets’, ‘subversion’ and endangering state security, when all they did was, for instance, possess teachings and photos of their spiritual leader Dalai Lama or promoting Tibetan culture. Many who engage in peaceful expressions of protest against official repression such as self-immolation protesters are projected as harbouring “terrorist” tendencies and those participating and linked to such activities are also subjected to interrogation and detainment. The PRC also conducts mass surveillance of the Tibetans’ private communications to track and monitor their activities. This violation of privacy is an important example of how the PRC claims internationally to stick to global humanitarian standards but implements the opposite within their state.
The intrusive and controlling behaviour of the PRC and its utter disregard and violation of international human rights standards have had a devastating impact on the status of Tibetan political prisoners, and those whose lives were turned upside down with their loved ones in detention, torture, disappearance, imprisonment and sometimes, unexplained death. Many individuals and families still have no information about their loved ones who were taken away as political prisoners.
Through the Tibetan Political Prisoners Database (TPPD), the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) will monitor, document and disseminate accurate and reliable updates on the condition of Tibetan political prisoners inside Tibet. Information will be made available online and offline (based on specific requests) on specific cases and issues relating to the TPPD. One of the goals behind the improved TPPD is to build a more comprehensive picture of the changes and trends affecting the status and condition of political prisoners in Tibet. A well-researched account on Tibetan political prisoners will allow a better understanding of the many aspects of violations suffered by a political prisoner, beginning with his detention and ending in his incarceration, that is, if he or she is lucky enough to sustain torture and beatings during the interrogation and detention phase. The TPPD also serves to debunk official claims from PRC that “there are no political prisoners”. Everyone included in the TPPD was punished in one way or the other for peacefully exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms. PRC’s failure to recognise and account for political prisoners only allows the Chinese government to criminalise globally-recognised human rights and those exercising these rights peacefully.
The total figure in the TPPD represents only a fraction of the real number of political prisoners in Tibet. The government of the PRC continues to claim, most recently during its fifth periodic review before the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in November 2015, that it keeps no political prisoners, firmly refusing to divulge any statistics on the actual number of political prisoners in PRC. Thanks to PRC’s secrecy and strategic concealment, the whereabouts of thousands of peaceful protesters, activists, and other human rights defenders continue to remain unknown and hidden from public view.
On the 10th of March 2008, to mark the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, a group of monks from Drepung monastery in the capital city of Lhasa led a peaceful demonstration, which later spread to much of other areas outside of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), in Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan. The ‘2008 uprising’ as it was later known lasted for more than two years and turned out to be one of the most widespread, longest-running non-violent protests against Chinese rule in Tibet.
Though the official Chinese media reported the death of only 18 individuals and 1 police officer as a result of the March 2008 protests, it has failed to provide details regarding the death from indiscriminate firing by security officers, torture, suppression and repression of civil liberties, including people’s right to freedom of expression, opinion, assembly and movement besides other fundamental human rights. The bulk of known political prisoners including those serving as high as 15-year sentence was convicted in connection with the 2008-related protests and subsequent crackdowns.
Of particular concern is the host of legal justifications used to modify and misinterpret ambiguous domestic law. In addition, new laws purportedly passed to provide protection and security to the public such as National Security Law, Anti-terrorism Law, NGOs Draft Law, are used to justify targeted crackdown on Tibetan and Uyghur minorities. According to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Criminal Law Amendment (9), “those organizing or leading a terrorist organization shall be sentenced to ten or more years of imprisonment or life imprisonment, and their property confiscated; those actively participating in a terrorist organization are given a sentence of between three and ten years imprisonment and a fine; other participants are given a sentence of upto three years imprisonment, short-term detention, controlled release or deprivation of political rights, and a concurrent fine may be given.” However, the failure to specify and define ‘terrorist activities’ allows the PRC to modify and manipulate peoples’ activities at their own will.
Similarly, the National Security Law states that anyone perceived as a threat to the PRC, its officials and Chinese State Security will be prosecuted and revoked of their political and even basic human rights. This poses as a volatile grey area for Tibetans as they are uncertain of which actions are an actual threat and which actions are not. The PRC fails to provide a clear definition of what they consider as a “threat”. For instance, while displaying a portrait of the Dalai Lama and shouting pro-Tibetan slogans are considered a direct threat to Chinese National Security, lyrics of songs and poems that talk about Tibet and its culture are also perceived as violations of state security. In a desperate attempt to eradicate Tibetan culture, the PRC labelled the exercise of protected human rights, including the right to freedom of religion, as “terrorist”. Likewise, sharing information about human rights violations are termed as ‘leaking state secrets’ and many human rights defenders are unnecessarily persecuted and imprisoned for simply doing their job in a non-violent manner.
Many cases of Tibetan protestors who were detained by Chinese officials highlight the unfair characteristics of the Chinese Law and its severe implications. During the long-running protests in Tibet’s Diru County where Tibetans refused to fly the Chinese flag on their roofs, Ngawang Jamyang (also known as Ngawang Jampel), a highly revered monk, who had previously been imprisoned for two years in 2008, was arrested in November 2013 along with three other monks, all from Diru County. Their families were not informed of the charges of their arrest and where they were being taken.
On 17 December 2013, a month after being in secret detention, Chinese authorities from Lhasa returned Ngawang Jamyang’s body to his family. Ngawang Jamyang’s body bore clear signs of torture-related injuries. The authorities also brought a warning that threatened severe consequences for Ngawang Jamyang’s family if they revealed his death to anyone outside Tibet.
Like Ngawang Jamyang, multitudes of peaceful Tibetans have been arrested against their will and it has become a routine practice for Chinese law enforcement agents to conceal and withhold information about their whereabouts and medical condition. Cases of ‘enforced disappearance’ indicate the importance given to confidentiality while the PRC arrests prominent and influential Tibetan figures.
In Tibet, detainees are put through inhumane torture and are denied any form of legal aid. Political persecution campaigns such as “Re-Education through Labour” and “Patriotic Re-Education” were aimed at repressing dissent and assimilating Tibetans into the dominant Chinese culture. Though the Re-Education through Labour campaign was abolished in 2013, many imprisoned during the 2008 protests were subject to undue punishment for resisting methods of Chinese reform. It was used as a “social management” tool to ‘correct’ the behaviour of counter revolutionaries or those who questioned the interests of the Chinese state.
Punishments included indiscriminate torture which sometimes led to the death of prisoners while they were still in detention. Many political prisoners reported to have contracted life threatening diseases while they were in prison and those with existing medical conditions were neglected; resulting in a slow, painful death. In some cases, prisoners are subjected to extreme torture and when their lives are hanging by a thread, are released on “medical parole” to avoid accountability for their death.
The case of Paltsal Kyab, a nomad who joined the 2008 protests on 17 March, throws light on the severity of physical trauma that the PRC subjected prisoners to, during their time in detention. Despite Paltsal’s non-violent protest, his name was added to a wanted list and his family, including a 14 year old son was slapped, kicked and punched to reveal details of his father’s whereabouts. Upon hearing about his son’s torture, Paltsal turned himself in and was transferred to a detention facility in Ngaba County in April 2008 and his family could not get any information about his whereabouts or condition. A month later, they were told Paltsal Kyab had died in detention. Chinese officials informed Paltsal’s family that he had died of natural causes; although their scepticism led them to believe otherwise. Their doubts were confirmed when Paltsal’s body was handed over to them, in an unrecognizable condition. Paltsal’s brother claims that his body was completely bruised and covered in blisters, and there was not even a spot of his natural skin tone from his back to his torso.
In 2008, Goshul Lobsang, a Tibetan born in Bhelban Township in Machu County, Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province went into hiding after being charged with leading and organizing protests. He was arrested on 29 June 2010, after he was brutally beaten and tortured. About six months after his arrest, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. During his detention, Goshul Lobsang was given pain inducing injections, had toothpicks and other sharp objects pierced and probed the skin underneath his fingernails and cuticles, deprived of sleep, and denied medical care. Goshul Lobsang had lost function of his hands temporarily and on 27 October 2013, he was released on medical parole. One year later, on 19 March 2014, his health had deteriorated irrevocably and Goshul Lobsang took his last breath. Photos of him at home show his emaciated body and swollen feet, as a result of his treatment during detention.
In addition to severe physical torture, the political prisoners were also subjected to extreme psychological trauma for upholding their native beliefs. The case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, recognised as the reincarnation of Geshe Adham Phuntsok by the current Dalai Lama, and an evironmentalist and social activist, shows the extent to which the PRC will go, to repress Tibetan culture.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a reliable and revered monk from Kardze County in the Tibetan province of Kham. He built monasteries, a hospital, a home for the elderly and a school to educate underprivileged and orphaned children. He was placed under strict surveillance from 1987 because of his affiliations with political activities. On 3 April 2002, a bomb was set off at Tianfu Square in Chengdu. Using this as a pretext, the Chinese officials arrested, tortured and eventually killed Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. His nephew, Lobsang Dhondup was also convicted for being involved in the bombing after the Chinese police searched his room and found a picture of the Rinpoche. Despite Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s claims to be innocent and despite the public outcry, he was denied any form of legal defence, including a lawyer. During his detention, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche suffered from a serious heart condition, high blood pressure, dizzy spells and problems with his legs that would render him handicapped permanently. His family’s appeals to provide him medical care were rejected and on 2 July 2015, three government officials from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of Lithang County met with Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sisters and told them he had died. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was 42 when he was arrested, he had spent 13 years in prison, there was no autopsy report given to his family and his body was cremated against his family’s wishes.