(New York) – Chinese authorities should account for the death of a Tibetan tour guide serving a 21-year sentence for reporting protests in his native region seven years ago, Human Rights Watch said today.
Kunchok Jinpa, 51, died in a hospital in Lhasa in the Tibetan Autonomous Region on February 6, 2021, less than three months after being transferred there from prison without his family's knowledge. Local sources said he had suffered a brain hemorrhage and was paralyzed.
“Kunchok Jinpa’s death is yet another grim case of a wrongfully imprisoned Tibetan dying from mistreatment,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Chinese authorities responsible for arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment, and the death of people in their custody should be held accountable.”
There had been no news of Kunchok Jinpa’s whereabouts since his detention in 2013. New information indicates that the authorities detained Kunchok Jinpa on November 8, 2013, providing his family no information on his whereabouts, and later convicted him of leaking state secrets for passing information to foreign media about local environmental and other protests in his region. His 21-year sentence is unparalleled for such an offense, and no information about his trial or conviction had been publicly available outside China until now.
The authorities moved him from a prison – believed to be the regional prison at Nyetang [Ch.: Nidang], near Lhasa – to a hospital in that city in November 2020. His family learned on January 29 that he was to undergo emergency treatment. Several then went to give blood at the hospital, but were unable to see him. He died in the hospital on February 6.
Kunchok Jinpa was a resident of Village No. 5 in Chaktse (Ch: Qiaze) township in Driru, a county in Nagchu prefecture (now municipality), about 300 kilometers north of Lhasa, the regional capital. He was one among reportedly hundreds of Tibetans from Driru detained after a series of peaceful protests in October 2013 against official demands that villagers fly Chinese flags from every house.
He is believed to have provided information via social media or directly to Tibetan media outside China about a protest in May 2013 against planned mining on a sacred mountain, Naklha Dzamba, together with the names of those detained for involvement in the protest.
People from his area, now in exile, reported that in his final communication on his WeChat micro-blogging account in April 2013, he wrote: “I am now at the bank of a river. There are many people behind me watching me, and I am sure to be arrested. Even if they arrest me, I am not afraid, even if they kill me, I have no regrets. But from now on, I will not be able to give reports. If there is no word from me, that means I have been arrested.”
United Nations standards adopted by the UN General Assembly set out that all death-in-custody cases should be subjected to “prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the circumstances and causes” of the death.
As the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions has noted, since there is a presumption of state responsibility due to the custodial setting, and the government’s obligation to ensure and respect the right to life, the government has to affirmatively provide evidence to rebut the presumption of state responsibility. Absent proof that it is not responsible, the government has an obligation to provide reparations to the family of the deceased.
The Chinese government also has rules dealing with deaths in custody. These require the police to “immediately conduct” an investigation into the cause of death by viewing and preserving the surveillance video of the detention cell, and questioning fellow detainees, doctors, and guards, among other measures.
Kunchok Jinpa, whose father’s name is Sonam Wangden and mother’s name is Pelha, had become a monk as a child at the Gom Gonsar monastery (Choekor Jampaling) in Driru. In October 1989, he traveled via Nepal to India, where he studied for about 18 months at the Changchubling monastery in Dehra Dun, the seat in exile of the Drikung Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
From April 1991 until his graduation in 1996, he studied as a layman at a school run by the Tibetan exile community at Suja in Himachal Pradesh. He undertook further studies at the elite Higher Tibetan Studies Institute in Varanasi, and became proficient in English and Hindi, as well as Chinese and Tibetan.
He returned to Tibet in about 1998 and took up work as a tour guide. According to a close associate, he was well regarded in his community for his stress on the importance of economic development and education. He made several return visits to India, including a final visit in 2012, when he attended the Kalachakra ceremony given by the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, in Bodh Gaya.
During the crackdown by security forces on the 2013 protests in Driru, there were reports of firing on unarmed protesters, mass arrests, dozens sentenced on political charges of up to 18 years, and several deaths in custody. Human Rights Watch recently received information that more than 1,325 local people were detained at that time, of whom about 670 were eventually sentenced and imprisoned, although this cannot be confirmed.
Since Kunchok Jinpa’s arrest and imprisonment, little information about the situation in Driru has been available outside China. On February 4, the exile newspaper Tibet Express, based in India, reported for the first time that another Tibetan from Driru, Namdak, about 34, from Meri village in the Tsala area, had been sentenced to 13 years in around July 2013 for assisting Tibetans trying to travel to India. Chinese authorities have not allowed Namdak any visitors for the past two years, reportedly because he is suffering from a contagious disease, and his present condition is not known.
The newspaper also said that up to seven other Tibetans were given 13-year prison sentences in related cases at that time, but their names, ages, and the charges against them remain unknown.
In August 2020, Lhamo, a mother of three from the same locality, died from injuries inflicted in custody there. She had been detained along with her cousin Tenzin Tharpa, apparently accused of sending money to relatives in India.
A collective statement from UN human rights experts in June underlined the need for an independent investigation of the range of human rights violations by the Chinese government. They expressed grave concern over China’s failures to respect human rights and abide by its international obligations, and recommended the establishment of an impartial and independent UN mechanism to monitor and report on abuses “in view of the urgency of the situations” in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet.
“For decades Chinese officials have gotten away with detaining people without basis and mistreating them, including to near death,” Richardson said. “Those officials cannot be relied on to investigate these violations, so there is an urgent need for an independent, international investigation by UN human rights experts.”