It is impossible to know the true number because China allows no outside organizations to visit its prisons on a regular or systematic basis, and its statistics on prisoners are singularly unrevealing. As far as we know, the government does not publish statistics on prisoners broken down by ethnicity, and even if it did, there would be no way of knowing how many Tibetans had been charged with common crimes for what in reality was nonviolent political activity. The scant information available leaks out primarily through political prisoners and often arrives well after the fact, sometimes years later.

The Chinese government maintains it holds no political prisoners, because political offenses are not identified as such in Chinese law. Instead, nonviolent political activity inconsistent with official ideology can be labeled "subversion," "endangering state security," "plotting the overthrow of the state," or merely "disturbing public order." Until October 1, 1997, when statutes on "counterrevolution" were formally abolished, such activity could also be labeled "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement," and many Tibetans are serving sentences under this charge. From 1987 until the present, the vast majority of Tibetan prisoners have been arrested for participating in political demonstrations, putting up political posters, or distributing political leaflets.

The average sentence for political prisoners detained at the end of 1998 was just over seven years, but some Tibetans arrested for peaceful protests were serving much harsher sentences. (1)

Years in prison is not all they face. Many Tibetan detainees face torture, beating, and degrading treatment during interrogation; unfair trials and sometimes detention without any trial whatsoever; punishment in prison, including long periods in isolation or years added to their sentences, especially if they try to protest the treatment of other prisoners; and illness and sometimes death from poor treatment and substandard prison conditions.

From the time Tibetans are taken into custody until their eventual release, they may be held in a wide variety of institutions: police lock-ups, municipal or county detention centers, labor camps, and prisons, to name a few. Detainees and prisoners are often transferred among these institutions, so it is often not until a prisoner is released that his or her places of detention become known. Every county in Tibetan autonomous areas outside the TAR. is believed to have a detention center run by the Public Security Bureau--the police--where most detainees are held for initial interrogation. Most prefectures, the next- highest administrative division, have at least one formally designated prison and often several labor camps, mostly for production of agricultural goods, for sentenced prisoners. Each province, with the exception of Qinghai, has several "reeducation through labor" centers, where people may be held for up to three years by administrative order, without any trial. Qinghai has only one.

The TAR. has at least two provincial prisons. Prison No.1 is called Drapchi, after its location, about a mile from the center of Lhasa, Tibet's capital. Prison No.2, known as Powo Tramo, lies four hundred miles east of Lhasa. Seitru (Unit No.4), in Sangyip, is the provincial detention center. It appears to be the facility where detainees suspected of serious political crimes such as passing information between Dharamsala and Tibet are interrogated. A second unit, apparently serving the same function, opened in the Sangyip complex in late 1998. Trisam, a provincial-level labor reeducation facility, is tucked away in Lhasa's western suburbs. The city of Lhasa has its own detention center, Gutsa, located about four miles east of Lhasa's Barkor, the path that loops around the central Jokhang Temple. It has a particularly bad reputation for torture. A facility known as Utritru (Unit No.5), in the Sangyip complex in Lhasa's northeastern suburbs, is also called Lhasa Prison and serves Lhasa and its seven counties.There are detention and reeducation centers in each of the TAR.'s six prefectures, in addition to many county-level facilities.

Many detainees never reach a courtroom or learn why they were jailed. China's Criminal Procedure Law permits police to detain and hold a suspect for months while an "investigation" is carried out. The objective of many such investigations is to obtain information on the suspect's contacts and to force a "confession." A study by the Tibet Information Network found that 41 percent of Tibetan political prisoners arrested between 1987 and 1997 were held for several months without charge and without access to defense, before finally being released (2).

There is no presumption of innocence in Chinese law and verdicts in political cases are usually predetermined. Police often employ harsh methods during investigation to induce "confession" including beatings, electric shocks, painful binding of limbs, suspension from a ceiling or out a window, and protracted periods of standing, kneeling, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, heat, cold, and conditions of dark-only or light-only. In 1997, China's National People's Congress passed a new Criminal Procedure Law that included a ban on torture and other coercive means of securing confessions, but there is little evidence of its implementation in Tibet, and the law still allows the use of material obtained through illegal means.

The inherent cruelty of the prison system in Tibet, from gratuitous slaps and kicks to life-threatening beatings, is applied equally to men and to women. The harshest treatment appears to be reserved for those viewed as "troublemakers." These prisoners, including young nuns, are those who refuse to be cowed or recant their views, but instead continue to campaign for Tibetan independence, demand better prison conditions, or protest the treatment meted out to fellow inmates.

Prisons and protests

Most repression in Tibet took place out of the public eye until a series of major protests erupted in Lhasa in September and October 1987, in March 1988, and in March 1989. The 1987 protests started with a pro-independence protest timed to coincide with a visit by the Dalai Lama to Washington, and ended with more than a dozen killed and as many as 400 detained. The March 1988 protest started as a demonstration for the release of Yulo Dawa Tsering, a senior monk and pro-independence leader arrested several months earlier. It was fueled by the resentment of monks from Lhasa's main monasteries at having to participate in carefully stage-managed ceremonies intended to give the impression of happy Tibetans free to practice their religion as they chose. The protests in March 1989 started as a small rally on the anniversary of the violence in Lhasa the year before and led to two days of clashes. By the evening of March 7, troops were entrenched in the Tibetan quarter of the city; by midnight martial law, which was to last fourteen months, had gone into effect. The arrests that followed the 1987, 1988, and 1989 demonstrations had the effect of dramatically increasing the number of Tibetan political prisoners, particularly those in Drapchi prison. That increase led to the use of prison protests as a tool of political expression.

Since 1987 there have been ten major protests in Drapchi and at least one each in Trisam and the Sangyip complex. Two involved a single individual, Tanak Jigme Sangpo, but by and large, protests have been coordinated affairs involving large numbers of prisoners and focused on particular grievances. They have taken the form of joint hunger strikes, shouting campaigns on behalf of prisoners in particular trouble, collective refusal to meet visitors, letters detailing prison conditions, and straightforward support for Tibetan independence.

The earliest protests were organized by male prisoners, but by 1992, the women of Drapchi, primarily young nuns, were organizing their own protests. From then until the last known protest, in May 1998, women figured prominently.

The first of the important protests in Drapchi occurred in 1990 when a twenty-year-old prisoner, Lhakpa Tsering, was denied medical treatment after he had been severely beaten. Although prison officials eventually provided some minimal treatment in response to demands from other inmates, he died on December 15, 1990. Some ninety prisoners responded by writing "We mourn Lhakpa Tsering's death" on a bed sheet and displaying it to prison officials. Veiled threats and blandishments succeeded in silencing the prisoners and no repercussions followed.

Two major protests occurred the following year, in 1991. In each instance, prisoners attempted to involve visiting diplomats, and each time prison authorities responded harshly. On March 31, James Lilley, then U.S. ambassador to China, visited Drapchi. Despite prison authorities attempts to keep him away from political inmates, two of them managed to hand him a letter detailing their grievances, but the letter was immediately snatched from his hands by his interpreter. The prisoners involved were severely beaten and put in isolation cells. When other inmates protested both that treatment and the prisoners' subsequent transfer from Drapchi, the People's Armed Police (PAP) were called in. Reprisals against the protesting prisoners were swift and severe.

On December 6, 1991, Tanak Jigme Sangpo, already punished for an earlier protest, staged a second one, shouting pro-independence slogans during a visit to Drapchi prison by a Swiss delegation which included the Swiss ambassador to China. In addition to being beaten and transferred to isolation, his sentence, then nineteen years, was increased to twenty-eight. (If he survives, he will be eighty-five years old when his term his up in 2011.)

By 1992, the women of Drapchi had organized. That year, the first day of the Tibetan New Year--called Losar-- fell on March 5, the anniversary of the demonstrations in 1988 and 1989. Many Lhasa residents had decided to acknowledge the coincidence of Tibetan New Year and March 5 not by doing, but by not doing. Contrary to tradition, tattered window-awnings, dirty door-hangings and faded whitewash remained untouched, greeting the New Year with utter cheerlessness.In Drapchi, the womenchose another form of protest, non-cooperation. Twenty-three of them, nearly all nuns, followed Tibetan tradition by donning items of Tibetan clothing brought by visitors. Prison officials, angered by the display of respect for Tibetan ways, ordered the women to remove the clothing and wear new Chinese prison uniforms. The women refused; PAP troops were summoned. They proceeded to beat prisoners for the three full days of the Losar holiday. When the PAP troops finished kicking them, punching them, battering them with iron bars, and shocking them with electric batons, the women were confined to isolation cells.

The 1992 protest drew little international attention, but the nuns persisted. In June 1993, fourteen imprisoned nuns, half of whom had been punished for the Losar incident in 1992, managed secretly to record independence songs. Each participant was able to contribute an individual passage using symbolic language to declare love for her land and religion and her devotion to the Dalai Lama. The cassette was smuggled out of the prison. When copies were circulated and guards realized what had happened, the nuns were again beaten and placed in solitary confinement. Court-imposed sentence extensions ranged from five to nine years.

By April 1996, every woman political prisoner in Drapchi was willing to be involved in a protest that initially took the form of a hunger strike. The incident began after prisoners refused to comply with the demands of a "patriotic education" campaign. As part of that campaign, inmates were ordered to denounce the Dalai Lama and to reject the boy he had recognized as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, and each was to declare support for the boy approved by China's State Council--none of whose members were Tibetan. When prisoners refused, officials threatened daily cell inspections by PAP troops. Three leaders of the women prisoners, Ngawang Sangdrol (who had been a leader in the 1992 protest), Norzin Wangmo, and Phunstog Pema, were beaten and placed in solitary confinement. When PAP officers began the inspections, nuns were accused, apparently arbitrarily, of having wrinkled bedding or improperly folded quilts. They were thoroughly thrashed. They responded with a hunger strike that lasted five days, until prison officials threatened forced intravenous feeding. The officials denounced the nuns for "attempting to harm the national reputation." 

The women were not cowed. In February 1997, again during Losar, nuns in Drapchi again vented their frustrations. This time, after officials assembled the women to listen to a performance by two "well-reformed" prisoners singing praises of Mao Zedong, two of the nuns responded loudly, drowned out the socialist tunes with "patriotic" Tibetan songs. Guards beat both women and transferred them to isolation cells. The remaining women went on a hunger strike the following morning, demanding that their comrades be released. Again the strike was broken after five days, this time after guards promised they would try to seek release of the nuns. (It is not clear that they ever intended to make good on that pledge.) After the women resumed eating, they were told that the sentences of the two singers would not be extended, but the two would serve out their terms in isolation.

Five months later, in July 1997, nuns protested again, after one woman was put in solitary confinement for her pro-independence protest timed to coincide with the return of Hong Kong to China.

A protest in Drapchi in October 1997, during a visit by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, again drew international attention. Three prisoners, imprisoned for ordinary criminal offenses, apparently feared that the visitors would be fooled by the extensive preparations that prison authorities had made to impress them. They decided to mount a protest during the U.N. officials' visit. One of the men began shouting "Long live the Dalai Lama." The delegation secured a promise from prison authorities not to punish the man, but the authorities broke the promise. The following day, after the prisoner had been taken to an isolation cell, two other men organized a meeting to protest his treatment. They, too, were put in solitary confinement. All three were beaten, reportedly beyond recognition, and later sentenced to additional years in prison. Chinese authorities refused to give detailed information about the cases to the U.N. and insisted that the longer sentences were imposed as punishment for additional offenses.

The most severe crackdown on prison protests took place after demonstrations in Drapchi occurred on May 1, 1998, International Labor Day, and May 4, International Youth Day. On both occasions officials had gathered hundreds of prisoners in an outdoor courtyard for a flag-raising ceremony in preparation for a visit by a delegation from the European Union (E.U.). Political prisoners and "common criminals," normally separated, were brought together. It appears that officials planned to videotape this assembly of well-behaved prisoners celebrating socialist achievements in Tibet. When the May 1 ceremony began, two common criminals, apparently aware of the impending visit, began shouting political slogans and were promptly joined by many of the assembled prisoners. Guards and PAP troops terminated the demonstration with gunfire, clubs, and electric batons. Officials tried to restage the event three days later, on May 4, the day of the E.U. visit. The consequences were almost identical. This time, Gyaltsen Drolkar, a nun who had participated in the 1992, 1993, and 1996 prison protests and whose sentence had already been extended from four years to twelve, initiated the protest. Again officers used deadly force to halt the noisy melee. The E.U. visitors were unaware that anything unusual had happened.

Authorities implemented extraordinary measures to prevent reports of death and injury from leaking out, and queries by foreign governments were initially dismissed by Chinese officials. Drapchi's governor told a Danish delegation who visited that August that nothing had happened. The vice-governor, however, admitted to another member of the same group that something had indeed occurred. Later that month officials in Lhasa's Justice Department told a European Democratic Union delegation that shots had been fired, but only into the air and only because police were "frightened." Officials have consistently denied that anyone died as a result of the protest. But over the following months, information leaked out and by late summer 1998, the death toll was known to be at least eleven, including six nuns, four monks, and one of the lay convicts who sparked the first protest. Others were severely injured. Some participants, including political prisoners, disappeared--they are believed to have been shifted to isolation facilities in nearby prisons after severe beatings. Most disturbing were reports that the six nuns all committed suicide on June 7, one month after the incident, at the time they reportedly were still in solitary confinement. At least one of the most active nuns, twenty-three-year-old Ngawang Sangdrol, who by then had had her original three-year sentence extended to seventeen years, protested again about a month after the May incidents. In October 1998, the Lhasa Intermediate Municipal Court added four more years to her sentence.

Prisoners have no illusions about penalties for arousing official displeasure. As has been demonstrated, bodily harm, long periods in isolation, and extended sentences are a near certainty. For some the results have been permanent injury, or even death. Traditional Tibetan funerals, called "sky burials," which entail dismemberment, provide opportunities to discover fractured skulls, swollen brains, broken ribs, punctured lungs, and damaged kidneys. One of Tibet's most respected political prisoners, Jampal Khedrub, a Drepung monk, sentenced to an eighteen-year term after his arrest in 1989, was summoned to a meeting with Paljor, a Drapchi prison official, in July 1996. He left the meeting unconscious and died the next day. Funeral preparation revealed a crushed testicle. Two months earlier, a monk, Sangye Tenphel, died in Drapchi after a beating by the same official. Funeral masters found broken ribs and lung damage. None of the bodies of the nuns who died in the aftermath of the May 1998 demonstrations were returned to families. After relatives were permitted, from a distance, a brief look at part of their faces, the bodies were cremated, thereby destroying any evidence of abuse they might have revealed.

In China, as in most countries, imprisonment has two goals: punishment and reform. But even in prison it is hard to reform beliefs. When crimes are expressions of ideas, it is minds, not actions, that must be altered. Initially, prison authorities in Tibet tried to dilute the solidarity shared by political prisoners by dispersing them among ordinary convicts. This, in itself, was heightened punishment for persons who did not consider themselves criminals. But jailers found that banned beliefs spread easily, even to murderers and rapists, and in January 1990, while Lhasa was under martial law, separate divisions were created for Drapchi's political prisoners.

As the "patriotic education" and anti-Dalai Lama campaigns have intensified in Tibet, so have the consequences for prisoners. Those who refuse to disavow their beliefs face prolonged beating, light deprivation, and solitary confinement. When one of their comrades is beaten, put into isolation or killed, they protest in a unified voice. The collision between political prisoners and jailers highlights the failure of a system which has proven its capacity to punish, but not to reform. More importantly, it illuminates why prisoners risk so much when so little can be won. When a Tibetan prisoner dies rather than capitulate, Chinese authorities can issue denials, try to cut off the information flow, or destroy the evidence. But minds remain unreformed.

1. Steven D. Marshall, Hostile Elements (New York: Tibet Information Network, London, 1999), pp. 56-57.

2. Ibid., pp.
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