(New York) – Chinese authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) have prosecuted four monks who received up to 20 years in prison for dubious offenses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The sentences reflect the increasing pressure on local officials to restrict online communications and punish peaceful expression as a security threat.
The 61-page report, “‘Prosecute Them with Awesome Power’: China’s Crackdown on Tengdro Monastery and Restrictions on Communications in Tibet,” details, for the first time, the government’s crackdown on Tibetan monks in the little-known Tengdro monastery. In September 2019, police in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, found private messages on a cell phone lost by Choegyal Wangpo, a Tibetan monk. Several messages had been exchanged with Tibetan monks living in Nepal, including records of donations after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. The police responded with a raid on the monastery that resulted in multiple arrests, a suicide, and, in 2020, a secret trial of four monks.
“The unprecedented sentences of the Tengdro monks reflect a ‘perfect storm’ in Tibet,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The Chinese government’s assumption that Tibetan monks and nuns are potential subversives, the heightened border security, and increased restrictions on online communications and religious donations all combined to create a shocking miscarriage of justice.”
The four monks – Choegyal Wangpo, Lobsang Jinpa, Norbu Dondrup, and Ngawang Yeshe – received sentences of 20, 19, 17, and 5 years respectively, even though sending messages abroad or making humanitarian donations does not violate Chinese law.
Human Rights Watch drew on interviews with Tibetans outside China, official media, including social media, and exile media reports to examine the circumstances that led to the raid and the factors that could explain the extreme punishment meted out to the Tengdro monks.
In October 2020, shortly after the sentencing of the Tengdro monks, Human Rights Watch reported on the detention of two Tibetans for sending remittances to relatives in India. One of the Tibetans died from injuries inflicted in custody.
Since then, there have been several reports in Tibetan media outside China of meetings held by local officials both in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas to threaten residents against contacting relatives outside of China. The authorities have also detained and beaten Tibetan netizens for posts deemed by the authorities to “endanger national security.” The Tengdro monks case demonstrates the arbitrary and extreme manner in which restrictions on online communications are being enforced throughout Tibetan areas.
The monks imprisoned should be immediately released, and concerned governments and the United Nations should pressure the Chinese government to respect Tibetans’ human rights, Human Rights Watch said. These recommendations echo the June 2020 call by 50 UN human rights experts to establish a standing monitoring mechanism on China at the UN.
“The horrific treatment of the Tengdro monks points to the Chinese government’s pressure on officials in Tibet to find and punish cases of political subversion – even if the alleged subversion is a figment of their imagination,” Richardson said.