China must investigate death of Tibetan lama in prison; release his relatives from detention

Dolkar Lhamo
Dolkar Lhamo

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) condemns the illegal and incommunicado detention of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s relatives and calls for immediate investigation into the death of Rinpoche in Chuangdong Prison near Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Information received by TCHRD confirms the arbitrary detention of Rinpoche’s sister Dolkar Lhamo, age 52, and niece Nyima Lhamo, age 25, at an undisclosed location after they submitted a petition calling for an investigation into circumstances leading to Rinpoche’s death. Both women were detained on 17 July from a restaurant in Chengdu by police officers from Lithang County, located in Tibetan province of Kham. They have not been heard or seen since then.

Nyima Lhamo
Nyima Lhamo

TCHRD believes that both relatives have been detained in connection with their sustained campaign to call for the release of Rinpoche’s remains and for calling on the Chinese authorities to launch an impartial investigation into the death of Rinpoche in prison. The petition has been widely shared and circulated by exile Tibetan organisations and submitted by TCHRD to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant Special Procedures division including Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly.

Rinpoche’s relatives did not deserve arbitrary detention and the psychological and physical harm associated with it; they submitted a petition calling for an impartial investigation into the death of Rinpoche. Submitting petitions to challenge the arbitrary use of power by government agencies does not break any law, therefore, the officers who detained them must be made accountable for their unlawful actions.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death was the result of a series of human rights violations. Even after his death, the government of People’s Republic of China (PRC) still has human rights obligations that it is legally obliged to follow. After ignoring its legal obligations and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s rights to be protected from arbitrary detention, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and arbitrary or extrajudicial killings, the PRC should investigate Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death and make the results of the investigation public.

A government’s obligation to investigate deaths is required to fulfill the right to a remedy for family members if the death was caused deliberately or by negligence. Additionally, the investigation establishes facts necessary to prosecute officials who were complicit in the death and can prevent other deaths. A genuine, transparent investigation of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death and the prosecution of the responsible officials would send a clear message that the PRC is committed to rule of law and ending the culture of impunity that has allowed human rights violations to occur in Tibet unchecked.

When there is a death in custody, States are obliged to investigate the death. While there is no single definitive document that definitively outlines for what an investigation must entail. To provide some guidance the International Commission of the Red Cross developed guidelines for investigating deaths in custody. These guidelines are based on existing international legal norms and provide minimum requirements for an investigation.

To meet the minimum standards an investigation must be undertaken as promptly as possible once a death occurs. Additionally, it must be thorough, impartial, independent, and include some public scrutiny. The investigation should include all relevant physical and documentary evidence, statements from witnesses, and a proper autopsy.

One of the main purposes of investigating a death in detention, is so that family members can learn what happened. This is particularly important in the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche because his family members had not been allowed to see him since December 2013, in violation of Chinese and international legal standards. Despite, the denial of family visits some information about Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s health did get out. TCHRD learned that his heart condition had continued to deteriorate and injuries to his feet required him to use a walking stick.

In 2014, TCHRD called for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to be released on medical parole so that he could receive the medical attention he required. Whether prison officials made any efforts to give Tenzin Delek Rinpoche the medical care he required should be included in the investigation. Allegations that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was poisoned and that his injuries were caused by torture during his initial detention should also be investigated. The exact cause of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death may be included in his death certificate but prison officials have refused to release it.

Unfortunately, the PRC has not taken any steps to investigate Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death. His body was cremated by prison officials, who still possess the ashes and all the physical evidence. To fulfill its legal obligations, the PRC should immediately send impartial and independent investigators to Chuangdong prison before any additional evidence is destroyed.

In 2014 during the 4th Plenum, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) committed itself to upholding the rule of law. In 2014, at least ten Tibetan political prisoners died because of their treatment in detention. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death is an opportunity for the CCP to put its words and promises into action by carrying out an investigation. So far, Tibetans who have exercised their rights to freedom of assembly and speech have been subjected to severe crackdowns and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s family and friends are still waiting for an investigation.

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