A prominent Tibetan reincarnate lama and philanthropist Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died at the age of 65 while serving life imprisonment at a prison near Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, People’s Republic of China.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a highly-respected religious leader in Lithang County, Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, in the Tibetan province of Kham. He was renowned for his active involvement in the restoration of Tibetan culture and religion, social welfare activities and his outspoken criticisms against Chinese policies. On 5 December 2002, Rinpoche and his nephew Lobsang Dhondup were sentenced to death with two years’ reprieve and death sentence respectively for masterminding a series of bomb blast incidents at Tianfu Square in Chengdu. Lobsang Dhondup was executed but Rinpoche’s suspended death sentence was commuted to life due to international pressure.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had been held in detention for over thirteen years since his conviction in December 2002 for a crime he never committed.
According to reliable sources inside Tibet, on 2 July 2015 three officials from the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of Lithang County had come to meet Rinpoche’s sisters Donkar Lhamo and Sonam Dekyi asking them to leave with them for Chengdu to discuss the issue of Tenzin Delek.
The sisters were then taken to Chengdu, where they were kept for almost ten days, possibly in a guesthouse, without revealing any further information. On 12 July at around 10 pm local time, they were informed about Rinpoche’s demise.
Since the morning of 13 July, the sisters have been approaching relevant Chinese authorities to get more details on their brother’s sudden death while also urging them to release his body.
As of now the Chinese authorities have refused to hand over Rinpoche’s body to his family members. Nor have they revealed any information as to the cause of his death. The authorities simply said that they are holding a meeting over this, a source told TCHRD.
Following the news of Rinpoche’s death, local Tibetans gathered at Rinpoche’s monastery in Othok Village in Nyakchuka (Ch: Yajiang) County to pay their last respect and condolences. Local Tibetans have also gathered in large numbers in front of the township government office in Thang Karma near Othok.
Security forces have been deployed in the area and the road between Lithang and Nyakchuka counties have been blocked. Travel to the area is being strictly restricted.
According to another source, security forces deployed at the township government office have already begun clamping down upon Tibetan demonstrators outside.
“The security forces shot at the Tibetans. They also lobbed teargas shells to disperse the crowd,” said the source.
TCHRD is unable to immediately confirm the shootings and teargas attacks due to communication blockade imposed in Nyakchuka area.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was suffering from a serious heart condition, high blood pressure, dizzy spells and problems with his legs that made him unable to walk properly.
Despite appeals from his relatives and disciples all over the world, Chinese authorities not only refused to release him on medical parole, but also denied him proper medical care.
Rinpoche was wrongfully imprisoned and his basic human rights were denied during the entire process from detention to sentencing. He was secretly detained for seven months before his appearance at a court trial. He was denied access to attorneys or to private visitors during the entire duration of his detention, thereby confirming allegations of torture.
Tibetan religious leaders have always become soft targets for persecution in the hands of Chinese authorities due to their personal charisma and moral standing among the local people. This pattern of perceiving religious leaders as threat has resulted in a series of arrests and unlawful imprisonment of revered lamas including Phurbu Tsering Rinpoche and Bangri Rinpoche, to name a few. Chinese authorities have thus devised various means to demonise and taint the reputation of Tibetan lamas.
“The real ‘crime’ for which Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was sentenced to life in prison was his immense popularity and high moral standing among local Tibetans. He was targeted for his successful leadership in fostering Tibetan language and Buddhism among local Tibetans. We call on the Chinese authorities to hold accountable those responsible for Rinpoche’s sudden death including prison officials,” said Tsering Tsomo, Director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
Trulku Tenzin Delek Thupten Choekyi Nyima was born in 1950 to Tsepak Dorjee and Dolma Choezom in Lithang (Ch: Litang) County in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. He entered the monastery at the age of seven and sought his ordination from Khensur Shakpa.
In 1978, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche met with the previous 10th Panchen Lama at Labrang Tashikyil Monastery to express concerns over Chinese authorities inflicting torture on local Tibetans. He got the permission from Beijing to build a monastery and the Panchen Lama named it Kham Nalanda Thekchen Jhangchup Choling. In 1983, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognised him as the reincarnation of Geshe Adham Phuntsok and gave him the name, Trulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.
When he returned to Tibet in 1987, Rinpoche was constantly under surveillance for alleged political activities and connections with the Dalai Lama. Until his arrest on 7 April 2002, Rinpoche was active in social welfare activities in Lithang County.
Between 1991 and 1997, Rinpoche built seven monasteries, hospital, an old people’s home and a school for orphans and children from poor families in Nyagchuka County. He was also an active environmentalist and a teacher to hundreds of thousands of followers and disciples.
Rinpoche was very popular among the local people as significant portion of them trusted him over district cadres to solve communal problems fairly and efficaciously, in part because of his willingness to approach provincial and central government officials when local efforts failed. In 2001, a series of bomb blasts ripped through Kardze Prefecture. On 3 April 2002, a bomb went off in the city’s main square, Tianfu, in Chengdu. Shortly afterwards, Chinese police arrested Lobsang Dhondup, a relative and disciple of Rinpoche.
The Chinese police alleged that Lobsang Dhondup was involved with the explosions. His room was ransacked and police found a photo of Rinpoche. It was how Rinpoche was linked to the entire incident. Both Rinpoche and Lobsang Dhondup had declared their innocence and the authorities could not produce any substantial evidence to corroborate their allegations, conviction and sentencing.
The persecution of Rinpoche and Lobsang Dhondup occurred at a time when China had just begun using the ruse of ‘war on terror’ to crack down on legitimate dissidence and activism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Moreover, the controversial hardliner Zhou Yongkang served as the Party Secretary of Sichuan Province from 1999 to 2002, a period during which Rinpoche was arrested and sentenced. Shortly after Tenzin Delek’s conviction, Zhou was promoted as China’s Minister of Public Security, a post he held with iron fist until 2012.
The well-known Chinese writer, Wang Lixiong had written on a Chinese language website, “Trulku Tenzin Delek is a lama who is respected by all the people. By putting the label of a terrorist on him, putting him on trial and clamping the death sentence on him, the Chinese police might think they have accomplished something great.” Wang Lixiong further wrote that he did not believe that Rinpoche was involved in the bombings: “By this act, the Chinese police have used one arrow to kill two deer. The Chinese police have cut Trulku Tenzin Delek down to size and have claimed success in solving the mystery of the April bomb blasts.”
In a secretly recorded message, smuggled out of Tibet, Rinpoche had said: “Whatever [the authorities] do and say, I am completely innocent … Around that time, one of my friends called me and asked if [Lobsang Dhondup] was my relative. Then I became suspicious that something serious was going on. When I heard about the explosions and arrest of Lobsang Dhondup, I suspected that I might be wrongly accused and arrested-that I might become a scapegoat.”