The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) received confirmed information that, Geshe Sonam Phuntsok, a former political prisoner who spent five years in prison for his religious activities and for conducting a long life prayer ceremony for the Dalai Lama in October 1999, passed away on 5 April 2008 in Kardze after a prolong battle with multiple illnesses following a lengthy imprisonment and maltreatment in the prison.
As per the earlier information received by the TCHRD, Geshe Sonam Phuntsok, popularly known as Kardze Geshe, was in poor health for the long period of time since his release from Chuandong no. 3 Prison in Tazhu County in October 2004. Geshe Sonam Phuntsok, 57 year-old, was a hugely popular religious figure particularly in Kardze. Since his release from prison in October 2004, Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was put under virtual house arrest as movements outside his residence were severely restricted that Geshe has to seek official permission even for any medical treatment. His activities particularly in religious spheres were under constant surveillance from the authorities.
TCHRD mourns the death of Geshe Sonam Phuntsok, a popular religious figure of Kardze and considers his untimely demise as a direct result of the lengthy imprisonment, maltreatment in the prison and lack of timely medical attention after release along with constant mental harassment that he has to undergone till his last breath.
Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was born in 1951 in Choesa Village, Shusar Township, Rongbatsa District, Kardze County, Kardze “Tibet Autonomous Prefecture” (‘TAP’), Sichuan Province. Early in his childhood, he was ordained as a monk and at the age of 18 he received sacred initiation and other religious teachings from eminent Buddhist masters. In the 1980s he taught Tibetan literature to monks from 35 different monasteries. He also recorded historical descriptions of 13 monasteries in Kardze “TAP”. Geshe was based at Dhargay Monastery in Rongbatsa District but often traveled to monasteries and remote villages throughout Kardze County to conduct religious ceremonies and teachings. In 1996, Geshe travelled to India to visit holy places for pilgrimage. He met with the Dalai Lama as part of his pilgrimage during that time. Geshe Sonam Phuntsok returned to Tibet and continued to conduct religious ceremonies for nearly three years thereafter.
Geshe Sonam Phuntsok along with two other monks, Sonam and Agya Tsering of Kardze Dargay Monastery were arrested at gunpoint on 25 October 1999 by a team of around 20 Kardze County Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials on suspect of having “clandestine contacts” with the exile Tibetan Government. Geshe was barely clothed and barefooted at the time of arrest. He had prior to his arrest, initiated a long-life prayer offering for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In an address he made around that time, he praised His Holiness the Dalai Lama and advised the people to follow his preaching. Aware of the consequences for such an action, he even told the public that he did not regret anything.
On 31 October 1999, around 3000 local Tibetans gathered infront of Rongbatsa Government Office and demanded his immediate and unconditional release. A large crowd comprising of Tibetans from neighbouring counties also demanded the release of Geshe. About 600 PSB officers and People’s Armed Police (“PAP”) threw tear gas shells and fired indiscriminately into the crowd to quell the protest. Many Tibetans were detained and some received imprisonment terms and monetary fines for their acts. Tsering Wangchuk, a protester died while in police custody.
In March 2001, after a year and five months detention in Dartsedo Prison in Dartsedo County, Kardze “TAP”, Kardze People’s Intermediate Court sentenced Geshe to five years’ imprisonment term on charges of “Inciting splittist activities among the masses”, “travelling to India on an illegal document procured from Lhasa, for seeking audience with the Dalai Lama and for taking photographs with him”, “illegally conducting religious ceremony on several occasions within Kardze County”, and “for conducting long-life prayer ceremony for the Dalai Lama in Rongbatsa”.
Ill health in prison
During two separate visits to the prison, Geshe’s father and a relative were shocked to see him in a frail health. His father, Agya Phuntsok, described that Geshe was lean, semiconscious and could not move properly. In December 2001, Geshe, suffered from high fever, diarrhea, dizziness and lethargy. Although, Geshe was taken to a nearby military hospital on two occasions, kept on three IV drips and hospitalised for seven hours, it did not bring about much improvement to his health. In June 2002, it came to be known that Geshe had ulcer and low blood pressure but not life threatening one.
Geshe Sonam Phuntsok was released after completing his five years prison sentence. On 26 October 2004, Chinese Public Security Bureau (PSB) Officials brought Geshe in a government vehicle to his native Rongbatsa District in Kardze County, Kardze Tibet Autonomous Prefecture (“TAP”), Sichuan. He had earlier arrived in Dartsedo County on 24 October 2004 after release from Chuandong no 3 Prison in Tazhu County and underwent medical treatment before arriving at Rongbatsa District.