(New York) – Chinese authorities should investigate the death of a Tibetan woman in custody and release her wrongfully detained cousin, Human Rights Watch said today. Lhamo, a herder from Driru county in Nagchu, Tibet Autonomous Region, died in a local hospital in August 2020 shortly after being transferred there from police custody. Charges against her cousin Tenzin Tarpa should be immediately dropped.

In June, the authorities detained Tarpa, a 39-year-old entrepreneur from Chaktse township in Driru dealing in medicinal herbs and other local products, apparently on charges of having sent money to family members or other Tibetans in India, a common practice. Lhamo, a 36-year-old mother of three, was detained two days later, apparently on the same charges. She had been in good health before her detention. In August, her family members were summoned to the hospital, where they found her badly bruised and unable to speak. She died two days later, and her body was immediately cremated, which prevented a medical examination.

“The death of Lhamo, a Tibetan herder, is the latest in a pattern of apparent torture and death in Chinese state custody,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Tibetan regional authorities should be held accountable for serious violations, including arbitrary detention, torture or ill-treatment, and deprivation of the right to life.”

Although sending money outside the country is not formally a crime under Chinese law, the authorities regard contact between Tibetans in Tibet and those abroad as “endangering national security.”

The cases also illustrate the Chinese government’s long-running mistreatment of Tibetans, Human Rights Watch said. Tarpa, a former monk, had been under suspicion by local authorities since 2012, when he was among a number of monks from the Tibet Autonomous Region forced out of the famous Larung Gar monastery in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province. Tarpa then started a Tibetan-medium school for children in Chaktse, but the authorities closed it down, contending that it was “illegal.” After that, he started the Local Produce Trading Company, which became successful.

Due to the government’s extreme restrictions on communications for minority populations in China, reports of cases like Lhamo and Tarpa’s rarely become known outside the country. This is particularly true of Driru county, where local authorities crushed peaceful protests in 2013-2014, and restrictions on basic freedom are among the most severe in the region.

United Nations standards adopted by the 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.

A collective statement from UN human rights experts in June underlined the need for 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 establishing 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 justification and mistreating them, including to the point of death,” Richardson said. “Those officials cannot be relied on to investigate these violations, creating an urgent need for independent, international investigations by UN human rights experts.”