High-profile Tibetan political prisoner hospitalized six months before release

Chinese prison authorities have admitted Jigme Gyatso, a high-profile Tibetan political prisoner, into a prison hospital in Lanzhou city, capital of Gansu Province, as he becomes eligible for release in six months.

Jigme Gyatso, was a monk at Labrang Monastery in Sangchu (Ch: Xiahe) County, Kanlho (Ch: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. In September 2014, after years of speculation and concern, news surfaced that the courageous monk, who exposed Chinese torture methods to the world, had been sentenced to five years in prison for “splittist activities.”

Jigme Gyatso was likely admitted to the Da Xia Ping Prison hospital (兰州大厦平监狱医院)early this month or last month-end, according to a source with contacts in Tibet. In early March, Jigme Gyatso’s family members learned about his hospitalization from the prison authorities that broke the news to the family in a phone call.

There is a mounting concern and skepticism among Jigme Gyatso’s family, friends and relatives that the hospitalization would do the monk any good. Family members of Jigme Gyatso had not seen him since 25 January 2016 when the family visited him for the last time. Earlier, the monk’s family members were allowed a monthly visit although they were banned from bringing homemade food. During these monthly visits, the family members could talk to Jigme Gyatso for about 20 minutes at the most. Then in February 2016, without any explanation prison authorities gave no permission for the visit that left the family members clueless. However family members later recalled that during the last visit on 25 January, Jigme Gyatso had asked his family members to pay attention if he were hospitalised, because there was a talk among the prison authorities to do so. During the meeting, Jigme Gyatso gave no indication that he was suffering from any serious medical condition that warranted hospitalization.

Jigme Gyatso had earlier appealed for a reduction of his term, citing the Chinese prison system that allows a prisoner who accumulates points in prison labor to get compensated with a reduced term. However, his appeal was not taken into consideration. A relative of Jigme Gyatso who lives in India claims that based on the prison labour system, Jigme Gyatso’s term should have been reduced and he would have become eligible for release in February 2016.

In September 2014 when exile Tibetan sources reported the sentencing of Jigme Gyatso to five years, it was the first news on the monk since TCHRD obtained a copy of Jigme Gyatso’s arrest warrant in February 2012. The arrest warrant was issued almost five months after Jigme Gyatso was detained from his hotel room by 40 police officers.

Jigme Gyatso’s arrest on 20th August 2011 was the fourth time he had been arrested in five years. After detaining him for a long time, he was sentenced to five years in Da Xia Ping prison in the city of Lanzhou.

In 2008, after already having been arrested twice, Jigme Gyatso gave a 20-minute interview to Voice of America (VOA). In the interview he described his treatment after he was detained during the 2008 Uprising. Jigme Gyatso described how during his detention, he was kept continuously handcuffed in one position for many days and nights. During interrogation sessions he was suspended from the ceiling while his interrogators beat him and told him he must confess. One interrogation session lasted two days and Jigme Gyatso was not allowed to eat or drink. Twice, during the interrogation sessions, Jigme Gyatso lost consciousness. The second time he was unconscious for six days and returned to his family once he regained consciousness because he was on the verge of dying.

In the VOA interview, Jigme Gyatso described how he learned that 180 monks, including the most senior monk and the monastery’s official lama, had been arrested and forced to stand on the tips of their toes all the night while guards beat them with the butts of their rifles. Recognizing the risk he was taking by giving the interview, he also mentioned that other monks who spoke to reporters had their legs broken by baton, or were driven insane by the use of electric batons on their heads and in their mouths.

Despite the risks, Jigme Gyatso did not try to hide his identity when he spoke to VOA. One month after the interview was aired, Jigme Gyatso returned to Labrang Monastery from hiding. Seventy armed police surrounded Jigme Gyatso’s quarters in Labrang monastery and arrested him. After six months and the efforts of two Chinese human rights lawyers, Li Fangping and Jiang Tianyong, Jigme Gyatso was released.

Jigme Gyatso continued to live in Labrang Monastery. He was arrested for the fourth time in August 2011. This time, 40 police officers surrounded his hotel room. Monks and students who were at the hotel asked why Jigme Gyatso was being arrested but the police refused to answer and denied that Jigme Gyatso was in the room, even though he could be heard speaking and seen through the windows. The next day, 50 police officers searched his room in Labrang Monastery and took his computer, CDs, and photos of the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government refused to provide any information about Jigme Gyatso’s treatment or condition and his friends and family worried that he was being denied medical care. Local authorities prohibited two Beijing rights lawyers, Wang Yajun and Zhang Kai, who had been contacted by his friends and family, from representing him. The lawyers learned that Jigme Gyatso had been charged with “Suspicion of instigating anti-nationalist separatism,” received a hearing in early 2012 with court appointed local lawyers, and was sentenced immediately after the hearing. They were unable to learn anything about how Jigme Gyatso was being treated or his health. With no other options, Jigme Gyatso’s friends petitioned the United Nations to intervene on his behalf.

In his VOA interview, Jigme Gyatso said his main hope was that the international media and the United Nations come to Tibet and report on what was happening. By November 2012, UN Special Rapporteurs had 12 unanswered requests to visit and assess the situation in Tibet. Despite the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) acceptance of the recommendations during October 2013 Universal Periodic Review to facilitate a visit by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, this has not happened.

TCHRD is deeply concerned over the sudden turn of events in Jigme Gyatso’s case, and calls on the Chinese authorities to make public the details of the monk’s medical condition. Based on the available information, it appears Jigme Gyatso showed no sign of medical conditions that warranted sudden hospitalization. Last year, TCHRD’s submission to UN Committee Against Torture during China’s Fifth Periodic Review, reported a surge in detention-related deaths among Tibetan political prisoners. In Tibet, detainees are still beaten and subjected to conditions that amount to torture—including the denial of medical care, starvation diets, and freezing cells. At every stage of the process Tibetan political prisoners have died because of torture during detention. Chinese officials responsible for their deaths are not held accountable. Instead, officials are protected by efforts to conceal the cause and number of deaths in detention. Prisoners who are about to die are released on “medical parole” so that their death does not occur in a detention facility—even though it was caused by their treatment during detention.

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