(New York) – Chinese security forces must immediately release Sonam, a monk from the Potala Palace in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Human Rights Watch said. Sonam was taken from the Palace in what confidential sources describe as a politically motivated detention.
Sonam, who uses only one name, reportedly was arrested on or about August 21 at the rear-vehicle entrance of the Potala Palace, which became the winter home of the Dalai Lama in 1648. This entrance was used by tourist groups, not by Tibetan visitors. According to observers, when Sonam arrived at the entrance, lured there by a message saying that someone was waiting for him, he was quietly taken away in an unmarked vehicle. Lhasa police often use unofficial vehicles to carry out detentions in a low-key and unobtrusive manner. No one has seen Sonam since the incident.
“It’s outrageous that Chinese security forces simply spirit people away for what they suspect are unacceptable political opinions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To haul someone in for what they might be thinking or have casually expressed makes China’s promises to uphold human rights standards empty words at best.”
The incident occurred during a heightened security alert before September 1, when China celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, it seems unlikely that his was a case of preventative detention. Those rounded up usually are previously convicted political prisoners who have served out their sentences. This was Sonam’s first known detention.
Sonam, now in his early 40s and originally from Toelung Dechen county, just west of Lhasa, was one of the first monks allowed to enroll at the Potala Palace following its reopening several years after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). He worked first as a cook but was later promoted to the position of “go-nyer” or caretaker monk, at the Maitreya temple within the Palace. Recently, Sonam and a Tibetan doctor opened a clinic in the Potala to provide medical assistance to older monks in residence. He also was appointed as a delegate on an official trip to Nepal in the mid-1990s, an indication of official trust in his loyalty.
Some sources report that two other Potala monks were detained at about the same time as Sonam, but the information, including a report that they were subsequently released, has not been confirmed.
“Given the poor treatment often meted out to Tibetans in detention, we are very concerned about Sonam’s physical condition,” said Adams. “The Chinese government needs to make a public statement about his whereabouts and allow an independent lawyer or family member to visit him immediately.”
In a case of apparent preventative detention, Sonam Gyalpo, a tailor, unrelated to Sonam the monk, was detained by state security as he returned from work on August 25. Following his detention, officers thoroughly searched his house and confiscated a videotape and printed material.
Other confirmed cases of preemptive action in connection with the fortieth anniversary celebrations include Tibetans who had been caught, even years earlier, after returning from unauthorized trips to India. Chinese officials’ sensitivity to trips to and from India stems from concern that returnees who visit Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s place of residence, might on their return to Tibet act as agents for the “Tibetan government-in-exile.”
Even though the Tibetans who had visited India had been residing in Lhasa at the time the security crackdown began, they were banished from the capital, sent to rural villages where their families were registered and made to check in daily at the local police station until the heightened security period ended on September 10. Public identification of such individuals could jeopardize their safety. Confidential sources told Human Rights Watch that many held in preventative custody have already been released.
On September 9, during a visit to Canada, Chinese President Hu Jintao minced no words in asserting China’s centuries-old claims to Tibet and characterizing the Tibet problem as a political not human rights issue. He was Communist Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region from December 1988 to March 1992, a period of massive demonstrations and martial law. In his remarks last week in Canada, Hu reasserted China’s claim that Tibet had been an “inalienable part of Chinese territory” from the 13th century onward, and he challenged the Dalai Lama to “renounce his Tibetan independence proposition…and really do something useful and beneficial for his country and for his ethnic group in his lifetime.”