TCHRD statement on the death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in Chinese prison

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) is deeply shocked and saddened by the unexpected death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, aged 65 years old, serving a life imprisonment at Chuandong Prison near Chengdu city, capital of Sichuan Province in People’s Republic of China (PRC). The arrest and sentencing of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his disciple Lobsang Dhondup demonstrates the Chinese government’s blatant disregard of fundamental human rights for Tibetans and is in violation of both international law and domestic Chinese laws.

There were many problems that took place throughout the legal process for both Rinpoche and Dhondup, from their arbitrary arrests, to their unjust sentencing in Chinese courts and their treatment following their criminal trials. This includes: the arbitrary nature of their arrests; the denial of adequate and fair legal defense for the detainees; the lack of adequate and concrete evidence to support their convictions; the absence of presumption of innocence during their criminal trials; closed and unfair trials; the use of coercive interrogation and torture on the detainees; the denial of visitation rights for the detainees; the denial of the right to be informed for the detainee’s families; arbitrary arrest and sentencing of relatives of the detainees; and, the quick implementation of Dhondup’s execution sentence lessened the chances for Rinpoche to receive a fair retrial.

TCHRD believes that Rinpoche was wrongfully imprisoned and that his basic human rights were denied during the entire process from his detention to sentencing. He was secretly kept in detention for about eight months before his appearance for a closed door criminal trial at Sichuan Province People’s Court, during which he was denied access to an attorney. Although the Sichuan Province Court claimed that Rinpoche had confessed to the crime, Rinpoche stated that he had never confessed to the crime and appealed for a re-trial, which was denied. Although there continue to be contradictory accounts in the media since his death, Rinpoche was sentenced to death with two years reprieve in December 2002, which was then reduced to life imprisonment on 26 January 2005. He was not, as some recent statements and reports claim, serving a fixed term of 20 years. TCHRD maintains that Rinpoche’s life imprisonment was not reduced to 20 years. Therefore, Rinpoche passed away in Chinese jail while completing his life sentence.

Rinpoche was not allowed private visitors during the entire duration of his detention either. In fact, since his imprisonment in 2002, Rinpoche’s relatives were only allowed seven prison visits, each lasting approximately 30 minutes under the close supervision of prison officials. The last visit with Rinpoche was in November 2013. Prison authorities rejected his family’s requests for another visit throughout 2014 without providing an explanation. Rinpoche’s sisters were finally invited to come to Chengdu on 2 July 2015, where they were kept waiting for 10 days. Finally, at around 10 pm on 12 July, they were informed that Rinpoche had passed away.

Relatives and disciples of Rinpoche suspect foul play, since he was not allowed to meet with relatives since December 2013 along with the sudden news of his death. In 2013, TCHRD reported that Rinpoche’s health was in critical condition. His heart condition had worsened, and he was beginning to suffer from nervous breakdowns. He had begun to use a walking stick after his feet were injured due to unknown causes in prison. TCHRD believes that he did not receive proper medical care while he was in prison.

TCHRD calls on the Chinese authorities to hand over Rinpoche’s body to his relatives to conduct the traditional Buddhist funeral rites and rituals. TCHRD is concerned that if the body is not provided to his family, many Tibetan lives will be at risk since local Tibetans in Rinpoche’s area continue to hold demonstrations for the release of his body.

TCHRD has received images and a short video of local Tibetans injured during the clampdown by Chinese security forces, causing many Tibetans to be injured and require hospitalization. There are images of at least six or seven Tibetans who were injured when security forces fired shots and used teargas shells on a crowd of more than a thousand Tibetans who gathered outside of the Township government office protesting Rinpoche’s death in Thangkarma near Othok Village in Nyakchuka (Ch: Yajian) County, Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province. Tibetans demanded that Rinpoche’s body be returned. A scuffle ensued between the demonstrators and the security forces, wherein Tibetans threw stones and security forces responded by open firing into the crowd and using teargas shells. At least one unidentified young woman has sustained a gunshot injury on her legs, while others were injured and taken to Nyakchuka County Hospital. There is no information on the exact number injured.

TCHRD has also received images of Tibetans demonstrating outside the prison where Rinpoche died. On the morning of 15 July, about a hundred Tibetans gathered outside the Chuangdong Prison demanding the return of Rinpoche’s body. It is not clear whether any force was used to disperse the crowd or anyone was detained.

TCHRD calls on the Chinese government to allow local Tibetans to practice their religious beliefs and offer their last respects to Rinpoche, who is a highly-revered reincarnate Buddhist monk. As such, Chinese officials should allow Rinpoche’s followers and fellow Tibetans, particularly his family members and relatives, to hold religious rituals and prayers as befit a spiritual leader of Rinpoche’s stature. By doing so, the Chinese government will be respecting the freedom of religious beliefs as stated in the Chinese constitution.

TCHRD also calls on the international community to put pressure on the Chinese government to hold an impartial investigation to clarify the circumstances that lead to Rinpoche’s death. Whether it was an unnatural death, as claimed by Rinpoche’s followers, or due to negligence and denial of proper medical care, those responsible for Rinpoche’s death must be held accountable.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has signed many international treaties and conventions that include human rights provisions that have been directly violated by Rinpoche’s treatment from his arrest to his untimely death in Chinese prison.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 5 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There is evidence that Rinpoche was subjected to torture during his detention, and many believe that this brought his untimely end. This is also against the Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which the PRC signed and ratified under the pretenses that it would be implemented in good faith.

The PRC has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and is therefore bound as a signatory not to defeat the treaty’s object and purpose under customary international law. The ICCPR’s Article 9 states that, with regards to arbitrary arrest and detention, every citizen has the opportunity to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court. Article 6 protects the right to one’s life, and Article 10 states that “all detained be treated with humanity and respect for inherent dignity of the human person”. Rinpoche was not granted these provisions.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMR) outline good principles and practices for the treatment of prisoners and management of prison facilities, and prohibit the use of physical punishments and all forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Although they are not a legally-binding set of rules, various domestic courts have treated the SMR as binding and a significant number of countries, the PRC included, have reported that their national legislation was influenced by the SMR. As such, they can almost be considered customary international law. In particular, Article 22 of the SMR states that all prisoners should receive adequate medical care. However, Tibetan political prisoners are often refused adequate medical care or are released when in urgent need of medical care as to relieve the prison of any responsibility to treat sick prisoners.

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which the PRC is a Party, also address the issue of medical treatment, requiring that people be allowed the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

In 2008, the UN Committee Against Torture concluded that “notwithstanding the [PRC]’s efforts to address the practice of torture and related problems in the criminal justice system,” it remained “deeply concerned about the continued allegations…of routine and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of suspects in police custody” in the PRC. The PRC is to appear before the Committee Against Torture again in November 2015.

In addition to the international treaties that it has signed, the PRC is subject to the human rights principles recognized as customary international law. For example, the right to life is a fundamental norm of customary international law. In addition, under human rights law, there is an obligation for States to investigate deaths in custody, especially in all suspected cases of extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions, including cases where complaints by relatives or other reliable reports suggest unnatural death”, according to the Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions.

Therefore, based on the international treaties that the PRC has signed, its domestic criminal laws, and the human rights standards recognized in international law, TCHRD calls on the Chinese government to return Rinpoche’s body to his family and followers, and to initiate an impartial and transparent investigation into the events that brought about his untimely death in Chinese prison.

(An unidentified Tibetan who was injured while protesting outside Thang Karma Township government office gets treated in Nyakchuka County Hospital)

(Chengdu 1: Chinese Public Security Bureau (police) officers can be seen arriving at the site of the demonstration outside Chaungdong Prison.
Chengdu 2: Two Tibetan women and a man seen outside the gate of Chuangdong Prison.
Chengdu 3: Tibetans at the sit-in demonstration outside Chuangdong Prison.
Chengdu 4: Tibetans at the sit-in demonstration outside Chuangdong Prison.)

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