Lhakpa Tsering was born in Lhasa in 1970. Just 20 years later, on December 13, 1990, he died in Drapchi Prison from sicknesses and injuries resulting from prolonged torture in detention. Despite repeated appeals from his fellow inmates regarding Lhakpa’s critical condition, prison doctors were still refusing him medical attention in the last days before his death.
As a boy, Lhakpa Tsering from Lhasa Kyire (a town falling within Lhasa municipality), attended Lhasa Sharchok school. He was said to be a diligent student who always worked hard and a favourite among his teachers because of his good behaviour. Lhakpa’s mother passed away when he was small and his father raised him as a single parent. They lived together with Lhakpa’s grandmother and his three younger brothers.
At 2 a.m. on November 4, 1989 Lhakpa was arrested by Chinese PSB officials. He was 19 years old and in his final state of graduation. He was charged for being a member of a “counter-revolutionary” group called the “Snow- Lion Youth Organisation” (which advocated for Tibet’s freedom and political rights) and for helping to paste independence wall posters and make copies of the forbidden Tibetan national flag.
Lhakpa Tsering was subsequently sentenced to two years imprisonment and one year deprivation of political rights. He was initially detained in Gutsa Detention Centre where he was reportedly severely beaten with iron chains, shocked with electric prods, and tortured to usch an extent that he was totally unidentifiable to his friends.
Lhakpa was then transferred to Drapchi Prison, Lhasa. He was known in prison for his great courage and nationalistic feeling and it is believed that he was singled out for harsh beatings for angering detention officials with his defiance.
Lhakpa became extremely sick from the beatings and his health deteriorated. It was reported that he was refused medical attention on at least three occasions in the days preceding his death.
In December 1990, in anticipation of a visit to Drapchi prison by a foreign delegation, the prisoners were strictly instructed to tell visitors that Tibet had never been independent and had always been a part of China. Lhakpa Tsering boldly retaliated, refusing to accept these statements, and was subsequently subjected to intensive interrogation sessions during which he was badly beaten. Prison inmates in the adjoining room heard cry out, “Mother please save me. They are killing me.”
After Lhakpa Tsering’s death, 93 prisoners in the male section of Drapchi staged a protest in the prison. Pieces of Lhakpa’s prison quilt were distributed to all prisoners to be made into flags for the protest and the quilt cover was used as a banner when the prisoners were led out to perform labour. The protest resulted in several unprecedented moves by authorities: People’s Liberation Army troops were brought into the prison on December 16 and remained until the next morning and visitors on December 20 were offered tea and food in order to dissuade them from reporting that almost all the prisoners had swollen faces and many had head bruises.
Lhakpa Tsering’s body was reportedly handed over to his family on December 16 and they demanded an inquest into the cause of death. A post-mortem was conducted by a doctor from the Tibetan Medical Institute and a local government official during which they found a variety of bruise marks on the body, blood clots under the skin and dried blood from the nose. The finger nails had also turned blue.
An unofficial statement made by the doctors and officials who conducted the autopsy implied that Lhakpa Tsering had died as a result of internal infection due to failure to treat intestinal lacerations caused by beatings. Other accounts by people close to Lhakpa indicate that he was suffering from dysentery and was in extreme pain and unable to eat while in detention.
No detailed official report was ever made, nor was a full-scale inquiry ever conducted. Suspicion over prison complicity was fuelled by the unusual offer by prison authorities to Lhakpa Tsering’s family to help with funeral expenses and to give food, butter and 300 yuan, equivalent to two months’ salary.
An urgent action appeal was submitted by Amnesty International for a full-scale inquiry into the post-mortem results and demanding that the report to be made public immediately. Asia Watch, another international human rights monitoring organization, sent a cable on January 10, 1990, to Li Peng, the Chinese Premier at the time, demanding “a full and impartial investigation to determine the cause of death of Lhakpa Tsering, and if allegations of torture prove accurate to prosecute all responsible persons.”
On April 6, 1991 Xinhua, China’s official news agency, quoted a speech by Gyaltsen Norbu, the chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, to then U.S. Ambassador James Lilley, in which he stated that Lhakpa Tsering became ill in November 1990 and died of appendicitis and peritonitis. It was never explained why Lhakpa Tsering was never hospitalised.