(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately release Tibetan monks and other peaceful critics arbitrarily imprisoned since the March 2008 protests across the Tibetan plateau, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing a new compilation of about 80 cases. There has been no information regarding some of the prisoners’ whereabouts, wellbeing, or charges for more than a decade.
The number of Tibetans wrongfully imprisoned in connection with the 2008 protests remains difficult to assess, as is obtaining the details of their cases. Information about sentences from Tibetan areas is tightly restricted, and people who report detentions and prosecutions to others abroad are themselves at risk of arrest. China’s official media only reported some of the 2008 sentences, usually with no further details. The Human Rights Watch compilation of Tibetan political prisoners relies on reports received from local sources despite the government’s censorship and intimidation.
“Tibetans who did nothing more than call peacefully for their human rights to be respected have been unjustly sentenced to long prison terms,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese authorities should immediately free these prisoners.”
In most cases that Human Rights Watch examined, the prisoners’ families have not been allowed to contact them or been informed of their whereabouts. There are serious concerns for the health of many of these prisoners, due to severe physical abuse and denial of medical care in custody. Several are reported to have undergone emergency medical treatment while serving their sentences.
The exact charges brought against the defendants are usually not known. Apart from arson charges against several people, the charges appear largely to be for nonviolent political activity, such as “endangering state security” and “divulging state secrets.” There is no evidence to suggest that any of the defendants received a fair trial before an independent and impartial court, as required by international law. Karma Samdrup, an environmental activist, was the only defendant in these cases known to be allowed representation at trial.
One group of cases involves three scholar-monks from Drepung monastery in Lhasa – Jampel Wangchuk, Konchok Nyima, and Ngawang Chonyi – who were arrested on April 11, 2008. All three were distinguished monastic teachers, and among the principal disciples of the late Lamrim Rinpoche, a revered Drepung lama who was not government-appointed, suggesting that the authorities perceived his continuing influence as a threat to their control of the monastery. The monks were accused of failing to prevent a protest at the monastery the previous month, in which reports indicated they took no part. Two years later, at a closed trial in June 2010, the court sentenced them to life in prison, 20 years and 15 years respectively, on unrevealed charges.
Three Lhasa residents were convicted of espionage and handed harsh sentences – ranging from 14 years to life – for allegedly sending information about the 2008 protests to people outside China. Information about other unjust sentences reported by official media at the time, very likely incomplete, includes about 40 names, for whom no details have since been made available.
The largest cluster of long sentences outside Lhasa went to those involved in the March 16-17, 2008 protests in Amdo Ngaba [Chinese: Aba] in which security forces reportedly killed over 25 Tibetans. At least five people sentenced to 13 years or more are assumed to be still in prison: Lobsang Choedar, accused of playing a leading role in the Ngaba county town protest; Ludrup Yeshe and Ludrup Puntsok, accused of involvement in the Amchok township protest; and laymen Karma and Tsekho, accused of involvement in an alleged attack on the Lota township government building.
Another group of prisoners consists of relatives and colleagues of self-immolators, who were charged with “intentional homicide” between 2011and 2013, a new charge that the authorities introduced to deter these protests, casting moral support for the protesters as abetting suicide. At least 10 such people are assumed to remain imprisoned.
Among those still serving sentences from the 2008 protests are three monks, one writer, and two businessmen convicted on dubious charges. Authorities charged an environmental activist and philanthropist, Karma Samdrup, with robbing graves when he opposed closing a conservation organization run by his brothers. Dorje Tashi, a successful property investor, was sentenced to life in prison on the improbable charge of funding Tibetan exile groups.
Two prisoners are still serving life sentences handed down in 1999 and 2000, for engaging in peaceful political activities. The monk Choeying Khedrup was prosecuted for printing protest leaflets. The lama Bangri Choktrul Rinpoche, who started an orphanage in Lhasa, was convicted of “conspiring with the Dalai [Lama] clique.” There has been no news of him since his transfer to Chushul prison in 2006.
The Chinese government should immediately clarify the status, whereabouts, and well-being of these prisoners and permit access by their families, lawyers, and doctors, Human Rights Watch said. All those held for peaceful activities should immediately be released.
At China’s most recent Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which concluded in March 2019, government officials said they had accepted recommendations that included combating torture in detention, respecting the rights of detainees, protecting religious freedom for ethnic minorities, and cooperating with UN human rights mechanisms. However, there is no indication that that the Chinese government is taking serious measures to address these longstanding concerns in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) or elsewhere.
Chinese authorities should cease prosecuting people for peaceful dissent, including under abusive charges such as “endangering state security” and “separatism,” Human Rights Watch said. The government should grant access to Tibetan areas for UN rights experts to document alleged rights violations and report publicly on possible accountability measures. Concerned governments should publicly and privately press China to abide by its pledges made at its Universal Periodic Review.
“The cruelty and dishonesty that Chinese officials have shown in the prosecution of these cases warrants urgent, independent scrutiny,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government should not only release those wrongfully imprisoned, but punish those responsible for these egregious miscarriages of justice.”
Political Prisoners Serving Long Sentences
The following cases, detailed below, involve Tibetan Buddhist monks and others who were sentenced to long prison terms, including life in prison and the death penalty:
- The Drepung Three
- Lhasa March 2008 “espionage” sentences
- Other long sentences related to the March 2008 protests
- Ngaba March 2008 sentences
- “Intentional Homicide” sentences
- Long sentences post-2008
- Life sentences pre-2008
The Drepung Three
- Jampel Wangchuk, senior monk and disciplinarian at Drepung Loseling college, was arrested April 11, 2008, and sentenced to life in prison in 2010 on unrevealed charges.
- Konchok Nyima, scripture teacher at Drepung Gomang college originally from Dzorge [Chinese: Ruoergai] in Ngaba, Sichuan, was arrested April 11, 2008, and sentenced to 20 years in 2010 on unrevealed charges.
- Ngawang Chonyi, scripture teacher at Drepung Tantric college, was arrested on April 11, 2008, and sentenced to 15 years in 2010 on unrevealed charges.
Lhasa March 2008 ‘Espionage’ Sentences
- Wangdu, former monk and political prisoner, working for an HIV/AIDS program in Lhasa run by the Australian Burnet Institute at the time of his arrest in March 2008, was sentenced to life in prison on “espionage” charges on October 27, 2008, according to official media. Wangdu was last seen in a Lhasa hospital, under guard, in 2012.
- Yeshe Choedron, retired doctor, was arrested at home in Lhasa in March 2008, and sentenced on November 7, 2008 to 15 years for “espionage,” allegedly for providing “intelligence and information harmful to the security and interests of the state” to “the Dalai clique’s security department.” On April 4, 2012, she was taken from Drapchi prison to Lhasa City Public Security Hospital for emergency treatment.
- Migmar Dondrup, tour guide and staff at a nongovernmental organization performing community development work, was accused of “sending intelligence to the Dalai clique… prior to and following the ‘March 14’ incident,” and sentenced to 14 years on October 27, 2008.
Other long sentences related to the March 2008 protests
- – 15. Seven monks and a layman from Dingka monastery in Toelung county [Chinese: Duilongdeqing], Lhasa, TAR, were arrested for involvement in a protest on March 17, 2008, and were among a group of 30 Tibetans sentenced on April 29, 2008: Pasang (Ngawang Yignyen), sentenced to life in prison; Nyima (Ngawang Choying), sentenced to 15 years; Migmar, sentenced to 15 years; Yargye, sentenced to 11 years; Kelsang Bagdro, sentenced to 15 years; Karma Dawa, sentenced to 15 years; Bagdro, sentenced to 15 years; Jigme, sentenced to 15 years. Sonam Norbu, a driver from Lhasa, among the other defendants at that trial, was given a life sentence.
- – 20. A group of monks and visiting teachers from Samye monastery were sentenced in June for involvement in a protest in Dranang county [Chinese: Zhanang], Lhoka, TAR on March 15, 2008: Tenzin Buchung, visiting teacher, sentenced to 15 years; Tenzin Zopa, visiting teacher, sentenced to13 years; Gyaltsen, Samye monk, sentenced to 15 years; Nyima Tashi, Samye monk, sentenced to 13 years; and Puntsok, Samye monk, sentenced to 13 years.
Kyambel Township Incident
- – 27. A group of monks from Tangkya monastery in Gonjo county [Chinese: Gonjue], Chamdo, TAR were arrested and sentenced on September 22, 2008 for the alleged bombing of a government building in the local township: Gyurme Dondrup, sentenced to life in prison; Kelsang Tsering, sentenced to life in prison; Dorje Wangyal, sentenced to 15 years; Kunzang Tenzin, sentenced to 15 years; Rinchen Gyaltsen, sentenced to 10 years; Tsewang; Yeshi, sentenced to 9 years; and Kunga Puntsok, sentenced to 10 years.
- – 33. The following residents of Machu [Chinese: Maqu], Kanlho, Gansu were sentenced on June 15, 2008 for involvement in the March 16-18, 2008, protest there: Lama Kyab sentenced to 15 years; Kelbar, sentenced to 15 years; Khechok, sentenced to 13 years; and Konchok, sentenced to 12 years. In addition, Sarpatsang Lodroe, a monk at Tsendrok monastery in Machu, was sentenced on October 15, 2008 to 12 years in prison for involvement in the Machu protest of March 16-18, 2008, and another Tsendrok monk, Gonpo Tsekho, was sentenced to 14 years on October 16, 2008.
Penpo Lhundrup Protest
- – 41. Lobsang Tsemey, a monk of Ganden Choekor monastery in Lhundrup county [Chinese: Linzhou], Lhasa, and Doloe, a layman, were arrested and sentenced to 15 years for their involvement in the protests in Lhundrup county on March 14-15, 2008. Among their co-defendants, four monks, Ganden Choedak, Tenzin Yeshe, Tenpa Dondrup, and Tashi Namgyal, and two laywomen, Lhakdron and Dorje Drolma received sentences of up to 14 years. These sentences were among 14 passed by three county-level courts in Lhasa on October 29, 2008.
Labrang Tsayu Protest
- – 43. Two monks of Tsayu monastery in Sangchu county [Chinese: Xiahe], Kanlho, Gansu were arrested for involvement in a protest in the township on March 18 and sentenced on November 24, 2008: Lobsang, sentenced to 21 years; and Konchok Jinpa, sentenced to 12 years.
Lhasa March 14 Riot
- Lobsang Wangchuk, 26, of Taktse county [Chinese: Dagze], Lhasa, TAR was sentenced to 15 years in early 2009, for involvement in the protest in Taktse county on March 15, 2008.
- Kangtsuk, of Taktse county, received a 2-year suspended death sentence for arson, April 8, 2009.
- Tenzin Puntsok, received a 2-year suspended death sentence for arson, April 8, 2009.
- Dawa Sangpo, of Taktse county, sentenced to life in prison for arson, April 8, 2009.
- Penkyi, of Sakya county [Chinese: Sajia], Shigatse, TAR was commuted death sentence for arson during the Lhasa March 14 protest.
- Penkyi (female), 23, of Nyemo county [Chinese: Nimu], Shigatse, TAR was sentenced to life in prison for arson during the Lhasa protest.
- Chime Lhadzom, 20, of Namling county [Chinese: Nanmulin], Shigatse, TAR was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
- Sonam Tsering, 27, of Palyul county [Chinese: Baiyu], Kandze, Sichuan, was arrested October 16, 2009 for involvement in the March 2008 Lhasa protest and given a 2-year suspended death sentence on May 20, 2010.
Ngaba (Aba) March 2008 Sentences
- Lobsang Choedar, monk at Ngaba Kirti monastery and former political prisoner, was sentenced to 13 years for involvement in the protest in Ngaba county [Chinese: Aba] on March 16, 2008. He was last heard of in May 2016, when he was reported to be in poor health.
- Ludrup Yeshe, a monk at Amchok Tsenyi monastery in Ngaba, was sentenced to 13 and a half years on October 28, 2008 for involvement in the March 17 protest in Amchok township.
- Ludrup Puntsok, a monk at Amchok Tsenyi monastery and editor of the monastery magazine, was sentenced to 13 years on October 28, 2008 for involvement in the Amchok protest.
- Karma, of the Kherkhangtsang household in Lota township, Ngaba county, was sentenced to life in prison for involvement in the March 17, 2008 attack on the local government building in Lota.
- Tsekho, of the Darjuktsang household in Lota township, was sentenced to 13 years for involvement in the Lota incident.
“Intentional Homicide” Sentences
- Lobsang Konchok, a monk at Ngaba Kirti monastery, was accused of instigating eight people to commit self-immolation. On January 28, 2013, he was charged with “intentional homicide,” in a trial publicized by state media, and given a suspended death sentence.
- Lobsang Tsondru, a Kirti monk, was the uncle and mentor of 20-year-old Puntsok, the Kirti monk who staged a self-immolation protest in Ngaba on March 16, 2011. Lobsang Tsondru was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “intentional homicide” on August 29, 2011.
- Lobsang Tenzin (Gyamokha), a Kirti monk, was sentenced to 13 years in prison on August 30, 2011, for “intentional homicide” related to Puntsok’s self-immolation.
- Tsultrim Kelsang, a monk at Nyatso Zilkar monastery in Dzatoe [Chinese: Zadoi], Yushu, Qinghai, was arrested in September 2012, during a raid on his monastery by security forces. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison on July 12, 2013, apparently for involvement in a self-immolation protest in Dzatoe in June 2012. He was reportedly in poor health at that time.
- Gendun Gyatso, a monk at Bora monastery, in Sangchu county [Chinese: Xiahe], Kanlho, Gansu, was one of five people arrested following the self-immolation protest by Sungdu Kyap in Bora in December 2012. He was sentenced to 6 years in prison for “intentional homicide” on December 10, 2013.
- Phagpa of Rebkong [Chinese: Tongren], Malho, Qinghai was sentenced to 13 years in prison on February 8, 2013, for encouraging Dolma Kyap of Dowa monastery in Rebkong and others to commit self-immolation.
- – 65. Lhamo Dorje, Kelsang Sonam and Tsezung Khyab of Luchu county [Chinese: Luqu], Kanlho, Gansu were sentenced to 15, 11, and 10 years in prison respectively, for abetting the self-immolation of Tsering Tashi in Luchu on November 29, 2012. They were sentenced by the Luchu county court on February 28, 2013.
- Drolma Kyab of Dzorge [Chinese: Ruoergai], Ngaba, Sichuan was sentenced to death, 2 years suspended, on August 15, 2013, for allegedly murdering his wife and claiming she had self-immolated.
Long Sentences Post-2008
- Thabkhe Gyatso, a monk at Labrang monastery, was arrested following the March 14, 2008 protest there. Charged with “endangering state security,” he was sentenced to 15 years in prison on May 21, 2009. He was described in 2011 as “half-paralyzed and with failing eyesight.”
- Tsultrim Gyatso, a Labrang monk, was arrested in May 2008, and sentenced to life in prison on May 21, 2009, for “endangering state security.” According to a recent report, Tsultrim Gyatso was taken to a Lanzhou hospital for an operation in 2017, and Thabkhe Gyatso was in the prison hospital at Tianshui for a long period in 2018.
- – 70. Pema Yeshe and Sonam Gonpo were arrested for alleged involvement in an attack on a government building in Tangkyi township, Nyarong county [Chinese: Xinlong], Kandze, Sichuan, on February 28, 2009. Pema Yeshe was given a suspended death sentence and Sonam Gonpo sentenced to life imprisonment (November 17, 2009).
- – 75. A group of mostly senior monks from the Denma Choekor monastery in Jomda county [Chinese: Jiangda], Chamdo, TAR was arrested for their involvement in the alleged bombing of the local township government office on January 5, 2009. Ngawang Tashi, Tenzin Gyaltsen, and Tashi Dorje were later sentenced to 15 years, Jamyang Sherab to 13 years, and Tsering Palden to 12 years.
- Konchok Tsephel from Machu county [Chinese: Maqu], Kanlho, Gansu, is the founder of popular Tibetan literary website, Chomei (or Butter Lamp). On February 26, 2009, he was arrested at his home, and on November 12, he was sentenced to 15 years on political charges. Friends at the sentencing reported that he appeared to be in poor health. This has been confirmed by more recent reports.
- Dorje Tashi is a business entrepreneur arrested after the March 2008 protests in Lhasa, accused of funding overseas Tibetan groups, and sentenced to life in prison on June 26, 2010.
- Karma Samdrup is a prominent environmentalist and philanthropist sentenced on June 24, 2010, to a 15-year sentence on charges of “grave robbing and trafficking in cultural relics.” He and his brother Rinchen Samdrup were detained on August 7, 2009, after their efforts to conserve wildlife in their native Gonjo [Chinese: Gonjue], Chamdo, TAR displeased local authorities. At his trial, in which he was defended by independent counsel, he alleged to have been tortured in custody.
- Sonam Lhundrup of Drakgo [Chinese: Luhuo], Kandze, Sichuan, was arrested for involvement in a mass protest in the county town on January 23, 2012 and sentenced to life in prison on April 26, 2012.
- Puntsok, a Ngaba Kirti monk, was taken from his room at the monastery on October 17, 2011. He was sentenced to 8 years in June 2012, apparently for communicating with people outside the country, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Life Sentences Pre-2008
- Choeying Khedrup, a monk from Tsanden monastery in Sog [Chinese: Suo] county, Nagchu, TAR was one of at least six men detained in March 2000, for printing and distributing pro-independence leaflets. He was sentenced on January 29, 2001 to life in prison for “inciting splittism.”
- Bangri Choktrul Rinpoche (Jigme Tenzin Nyima), the head of the former Gyatso children’s school in Lhasa, was arrested in August 1999, in connection with a one-man protest in Lhasa, and sentenced to life in prison. He is reportedly in poor health.
- Chatral Rinpoche (Jampa Trinley), former abbot of Tashi Lhunpo monastery and leader of the search for the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, was arrested in May 1995, soon after the Dalai Lama announced his choice of candidate. On April 21, 1997, he was sentenced to 6 years in prison, on charges of “separatism” and “leaking state secrets” and detained indefinitely thereafter. He is believed to have died in custody some years later, but this has never been confirmed. His co-accused, Jampa Chungla, sentenced to 5 years in 1996, reportedly died in custody in November 2010.