five years in drapchi prison

Phuntsok Gonpo, a 25 year old former Drepung monk, spent five years in Drapchi Prison. He is one of the many Tibetans who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Phuntsok describes some of the miseries suffered by political prisoners in Drapchi: specially designed torture techniques; forced prison “exercise” ; restricted visits; and stifling conditions in prison “warm houses.”

 Phuntsok Gonpo is from the town of Tsudue, Phenpo Lhundup county. He is from a poor farming family of eight members. The schools in the village were extremely basic and Phuntsok Gonpo joined Drepung monastery, Lhasa, in 1988 when he was 16 years old.

On September 14, 1991 at around 12 noon, five monks from Drepung monastery held a short peaceful demonstration in front of the Tsuglagkhang (Lhasa’s central temple). So as not to attract suspicion, the monks dressed in ordinary clothes. For about 15 minutes they shouted slogans of “Free Tibet” and “Long Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”

There were many plain clothes policemen as well as other security officials in the area. The monks were arrested by a Fang Bao Due team. They were Ngawang Tensang (21) from Toelung, Phuntsok Jangsem (19) from Meldro Gongkar, Phuntsok Thutop (19) from Phenp, Ngawang Choechok (16) from Toelung and Phuntsok Gonpo (19) from Phenpo.

The arrested monks were taken away in two vehicles to the Fang Bao Due office. “As soon as we arrived, the officials began to beat the detained monks and then  for a very long time, they were kept standing with their face to the wall and their hands up in the air. Phuntsok remembers : “Ngawang Tensang’s forehead was banged hard against the wall several times and when they finally came out of the office there was a huge bulge on his forehead. He also had a slight cut below his eyes. We were all dirty with blood smeared on our clothes; blood coming from noses, mouths and hands.”

The monks were told to wash and clean up and were then transferred to Gutsa Detention Centre. At Gutsa, their names were registered and another round of beating took place. “By that time we had been beaten so much that we were only half conscious of our existence. My body was numb. Ngawang Tensang suffered the worst, probably because he was the eldest of us. Phuntsok Jangsem was beaten savagely on his sides resulting in a severe injury to his kidney. They did not use nay tools to beat him but their methods were just as effective and when they finished with him and we were finally permitted to go to our cells, he could barely keep his foot down to walk.”

Phuntsok says that while in Gutsa they were frequently called to separate rooms for interrogation sessions; “They started using tools and methods of acquiring information. They used one technique one some  prisoners whereby their thumb would be pressed extremely hard by a special small metal device. Phuntsok Gonpo was poked everywhere everywhere on the head with a needle that is normally used for stitching quilt. He complained of a throbbing head and blisters for several days following his torture technique.”

They were kept in Gutsa for eight months. “The first few days were hell because the so-called ‘interrogation’ sessions were a substitute for beatings. Every time they called us, it would send chills through my spine”, says Phuntsok. “It was torturous to have to answer the same things again and again. It was such a pressure that eventually Ngawang Tensang  accepted that he was the leader of the group who spearheaded the protest.” Another series of interrogations followed Ngawang’s “confession.”

The Public Procurator was called to look at the monks’ case and finally a court room trial was held on February 18, 1992. The sentence was not passed that time and the Public Procurator called for heavy punishment as he did not believe them that they were the only people involved in the demonstration.

After 10 or 11 days, the trial verdict was read out in Chinese to the five monks in prison. Ngawang Tensang was sentenced to 10 years; Phuntsok Jangsem to eight years; Phuntsok Thutop and Phuntsok Gonpo to five years; and Ngawang Choechok to three years. Ngawang Tensang received the highest sentence as he was allegedly the leader of the group.

The monks were detained in Gutsa for another one to two months and then transferred to Drapchi Prison. Their names were entered in the register as well as their physical appearance at that time and any significant body marks.

As soon as they arrived in the prison, a police officer scolded them harshly and made them sarcastic remarks about granting Tibet “Freedom.” The monks were first required to study the prison regulations and were then assigned to work. Ngawang Tensang was sent to work in the prison vegetable garden and for a few days the other four ploughed fields. Phuntsok was sent to herd the pigs.

“The worst part of prison time was the labour work. Having to work in the plastic-covered vegetable garden without ventilation and fresh air was so difficult,” says Phuntsok. “Many prisoners who had spent all their days inside the dhroes khang (literally, Tibetan for ‘warm house’; Ch:weinsi) suffered kidney damage. Since 1995-1996, the labour work has been changed to ‘exercises’ which  is even worse than labour.

Sometimes military men were called in to make us do particularly difficult exercises. We were not allowed to go out at all since the exercise routine started. Within the ruka (unit) we had to march continuously with our knees high. The prison officials claim that it is to help our fitness but this is just fabrication. Instead it completely tires out our body.

In summer we are made to stand at attention in the sun for hours. In winter we are made to stand in the shadow. If we make small movements we are punished. Many faint while standing in the hot sun but we are not allowed to go and help them. Men who were are singled out and one young Lhasa was beaten severely for doing this. In the beginning, we would be kept standing for at least 40 minutes. Then the prison officials increased this to an hour saying they were not all satisfied with our ‘exercise’.

Female political prisoners were assigned to make yarn out of wool and they are given a quota of one to two gyama (one gyama is equal to 500 grams) which they must meet every day.

There is a great difference between criminal and political prisoners. For political prisoners the visiting time is less and we can receive the visitors only once a month whereas criminal prisoners can have visitors with few restrictions.

If we were not feeling well, the ordeal of procuring sick leave was painfully difficult. At the most, for a severe case, three days leave would be permitted.”

“When I initially joined Drapchi prison in1991 there were only about 90 political prisoners.”

Just before Phuntsok was released from the prison in September 1996, the prison Unit 5-where the political prisoners were normally held-was divided into two sub-units;  “in one sub-unit there were 137 political prisoners and in the other sub-unit there were 107 political prisoners”, he added.





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