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Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan monk, known throughout the Tibetan community for his work building schools, a monastery, and an orphanage. © 2015 Human Rights Watch

(New York, July 16, 2015) – 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 today.

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. 

“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.”

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s family was informed of his death by Sichuan prison authorities on July 12, 2015. 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.”

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. 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.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche 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. In a 2004 report, “Trials of a Tibet Monk,” Human Rights Watch found no credible evidence to support the charges laid against him. 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. In January 2005 Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Known throughout the Tibetan community for his work from the late 1980s through the 1990s building schools, a monastery, and an orphanage, it appeared to have been his attempts to stop the clear-cutting of forests that especially irked local authorities. 

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.

Foreign governments, United Nations officials, and numerous nongovernmental organizations had repeatedly called for his release since 2002.

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.”


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