On April 3, 2002, an explosion took place in the central square of Sichuan Province’s capitol, Chengdu, injuring two people. The police moved quickly, detaining Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan religious leader, and his nephew Lobsang Dhundop on April 7. They were put in Dartsedo Detention Center. Although there have been improvements in recent years, Chinese detention centers in the early to mid-2000s were credibly accused of using torture to extract confessions, as attested to by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, who visited China in late 2005.

Both Tenzin Delek and Lobsang Dhundop were formally arrested, tried, and convicted of causing explosions, inciting splittism, and illegal possession of firearms; the prosecutors alleged that both men had been involved in a series of explosions. They demanded death sentences.

The trial by the Garze Intermediate People’s Court took place on November 29, 2002. It was a closed trial. Lobsang Dhundop was sentenced to death, and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was sentenced to death with two-year reprieve, and suspension of political rights for life. Lobsang Dhundop was executed in late January 2003. Tenzin Delek appealed his sentence to the Sichuan High People’s Court, which dismissed it in January 2003, the same day the execution of his nephew took place.

Tenzin Delek was a much-revered and widely respected Tibetan monk who had been recognized as a reincarnated lama by the Dalai Lama in the 1980s. He was much loved by Tibetans – especially among nomads in Lithang, the place of his birth. From Orthok Monastery, he fought for justice, health care, educational opportunities, and especially for a clean environment, in the process making many enemies among mining and logging companies and their political protectors.

The man widely believed to be behind the persecution of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was then party secretary of Sichuan Province, Zhou Yongkang. Zhou was a hardliner known for cracking down on Tibetans and members of the Falun Gong group. He was promoted to Minister of Public Security in Beijing in December 2002, immediately after the conviction of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his nephew and right before the rejection of Tenzin Delek’s appeal and Lobsang Dhundop’s execution.

Once in Beijing, Zhou continued his rapid ascent, eventually becoming a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo with responsibility for overseeing the police and the courts. He was purged by Secretary General Xi Jinping in 2013, becoming one of the most senior victims of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. None of this had an impact on Tenzin Delek or any other political prisoner persecuted by Zhou. They remained in prison, denied any clemency.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was put in Sichuan’s Chuandong Prison, a high-security facility located in the remote Dabu Mountains in Dazhu County, a bleak landscape accessible only by car or bus.  Chuandong Prison, also known as Sichuan Prison Number Three, is in Chongqing Municipality about 180 kilometres from Chongqing City and a four to five-hour drive from Chengdu. It has for decades been the prison in Sichuan where the most important political prisoners are held.  As such it has acquired a well-deserved fearsome reputation.

Tenzin Delek’s sentence of death with two-year reprieve was commuted on January 26, 2005. The sentence was changed to life in prison.

The Execution of Lobsang Dhundop

The execution of Lobsang Dhundop marked the first execution of a Tibetan for a political crime in more than 20 years. His death prompted international outrage.

Once I learned of the execution of Lobsang Dhundop I called a Chinese official with whom I had worked on human rights cases. He sounded much besieged.  I admonished his government for killing Lobsang Dhondup, reminding him of remarks widely attributed to Chairman Mao Zedong: “We should be careful about killing people. People are not like vegetables. If you cut off their heads, they don’t grow back.” A grim silence followed.

After the execution, international attention turned to Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death with two-year reprieve sentence. Governments and human rights groups called for the sentence to be commuted.

I spent little time on this effort. Commutations of these sentences to life in prison or sometimes a lesser fixed term sentence like twenty years are the norm. By some estimates, fewer than 1 percent of prisoners serving sentences of death with two-year reprieve are executed. I assumed that Tenzin Delek’s sentence would be commuted, and it turned out I was right.

I soon set about trying to figure out a way to win Tenzin Delek’s early release. Early release in the Chinese prison system can be achieved by successive sentence reductions, parole, or medical parole. Sentence reduction and parole must be approved by a court. To get a sentence reduction or be paroled, the prisoner must admit guilt and express remorse. This Tenzin Delek refused to do. He pled not guilty at his trial and, while in the detention center, secretly taped a statement proclaiming his innocence. The statement was taped on January 20, 2003 and smuggled out of the detention center the same day. It was broadcast on Radio Free Asia on January 21, 2003. Tenzin Delek resisted his imprisonment, staging a hunger strike that landed him in solitary confinement.

Medical Parole for Political Prisoners

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche Image Credit: FreeTibet.Org

Medical parole for political and religious prisoners is not unusual. It does not require an admission of guilt. Although regulations state that a prisoner serving a life sentence must serve a minimum of seven years in prison before being considered for medical parole, they also state if the medical problem is serious enough, medical parole can be granted at any time. Unlike sentence reduction or parole, courts are not involved. The prison authorities can grant medical parole, though it must be approved by local prison bureaus and, in the case of sensitive prisoners, the Ministry of Justice in Beijing.

Since I began intervening on behalf of political prisoners in 1990, I have worked on more than a dozen cases of medical parole for prominent political prisoners, including Tibetans Jigme Sangpo and Ngawang Sangdrol, the Uyghur businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer, and democracy advocate Xu Wenli. All their medical paroles were approved by the Ministry of Justice, and in every instance the most senior officials in the Chinese government and Communist Party were consulted and gave the go-ahead.

I needed to get information on Tenzin Delek’s health, but I did not have a good channel to his family or to other individuals in Tenzin Delek’s home county who knew him. Dedicated activists for the cause of Tibet, Mandie McKeown and Alison Reynolds of Tibet Information Network (TIN) in London, had excellent contacts in Tibet and within the Tibetan diaspora, including with members of Tenzin Delek’s family. Of special importance was the relationship with Tenzin Delek’s niece, Nyama Lhamo who now lives in India after leaving Tibet in 2003. In a stroke of luck, TIN reached out to me for assistance, beginning more than 10 years of collaboration on the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche.

From the outset, I recommended medical parole. Over the years, the family applied for medical parole on several occasions. They never received a response from the prison authorities.

Bilateral Rights Dialogues

Complementing the efforts of international human rights groups, especially those focusing on Tibet, I began lobbying foreign governments that had official bilateral human rights dialogues with China to put Tenzin Delek’s name on the lists of political prisoners submitted at these dialogues. Western politicians and media often referred to Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as China’s top religious prisoner. From March 2003 to April 2011 – a period of eight years — the Chinese government gave written responses to at least 25 requests for information on Tenzin Delek submitted by the United Nations, the United States, the European Union (EU), European governments, Australia, and Canada. Dui Hua also submitted his name directly to the Chinese government, on average at least once a year, receiving both written and verbal responses.

While international efforts were underway to help Tenzin Delek, domestic pressures were building. In an extraordinary act of civil disobedience, 40,000 Tibetans living in Tenzin Delek’s home county of Lithang signed a petition demanding a retrial in 2009; the entire population of Lithang was, at the time, around 45,000. Local Tibetans staged a hunger strike, resulting in the detention of dozens of strikers.

Up until December 2006, China’s responses to foreign governments invariably claimed that Tenzin Delek was healthy, without giving details. Things changed in 2008. A Chinese response to the United States that year stated that Tenzin Delek had an illness prior to being put in prison (significant because prisoners cannot get medical parole if he or she had the medical condition prior to being admitted to prison), but that the condition had been treated and that his health was now okay. The response also said that the Rinpoche undertook light exercise and was sleeping and eating well.

In the November 2009 response to the EU, China repeated that Tenzin Delek’s health was okay, that he was eating well and was observing a strict diet, and that he did light exercise and gardening work. By this time the lama’s family knew that he was in fact seriously ill with high blood pressure and heart disease. He walked with a cane and had troubling spells of dizziness.

One of the last written responses to the list of a bilateral dialogue partner was the Chinese response to the United States in April 2011. After the EU-China human rights dialogue of May 2012 (a written response to a prisoner list was handed over – no information was provided on Tenzin Delek), China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a “policy decision” to resist receiving prisoner lists from foreign governments, and under no circumstances to give written responses. The reason given for this decision was unhappiness over how the blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s case had been handled by the United States. Information on Tenzin Delek through governmental channels dried up.

Chuandong Prison in Sichuan. Image Credit: Baidu.

Exemption from “Policy Decision”

My own inquiries were exempted from the policy decision to refuse prisoner lists and provide responses. I was not after all a foreign government. I could continue to submit lists and get answers to my queries.

In March 2012, just before the “policy decision,” I was told that Tenzin Delek had been allowed family visits and that he would get family visits in the future. In November 2013, Tenzin Delek’s family paid him a visit. This would be the last time the family saw him alive.

The last written response to one of my requests for information on Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was given during my trip to Beijing in August 2014. The response implicitly acknowledged that he was ill but pointed out that “sickness alone is not the only criteria for medical parole.” As the response put it, “Tenzin Delek does not meet other criteria. He is a threat to social stability and to himself.”

I concluded that the Chinese government was worried that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche would commit suicide, perhaps by means of self-immolation. Beginning in 2009, Tibetans burned themselves to death to protest rule by Beijing. By the time I received the response, more than 130 Tibetans had self-immolated. I doubled down on medical parole, arguing that a Rinpoche would never approve of violence of any kind, including self-violence.

I was too late. Before my ideas gained traction, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche passed away.

A Call from London

At 3:30 PM on July 15, 2015, I received an email from Mandie McKeown, Campaigns Coordinator the International Tibet Network in London. “I have been given some worrying news,” she wrote. She hesitated, wanting to verify the news from another source. At 8:46 PM she informed me that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had died in recent days.

McKeown’s news was current: Tenzin Delek had died on July 12. The lama’s family got the news in a phone call from the prison authorities at 10 PM Tibet time on the 12th. Large-scale protests broke out on July 13 as demonstrators demanded that the prison authorities hand over the Rinpoche’s body to his family and his monastery. The police reportedly beat the protesters and dispersed them with tear gas. Protests and unrest continued in Yajiang County, site of Orthok Monastery, and Lithang County on July 14 and July 15.

On July 15, McKeown advised me that Tenzin Delek’s body had not been handed over to the family, and that the prison authorities were preparing to cremate his remains without allowing the family or monks to view the body or carry out traditional Tibetan funeral rites. On July 15, the family was told that the cremation would take place the following day, July 16, Tibet time.

Acting on a hunch, I asked Dui Hua researchers to look for regulations on how to deal with the death of prisoners in custody. It turned out that regulations had just been jointly issued by the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs in March 2015, four months before Tenzin Delek’s death.

Article 17 of these regulations states that unless relatives had objections to the cremation or questions about the prisoner’s death, the body should be cremated as soon as possible. Article 19 states that the body should be cremated within 15 days after investigation of death is concluded, and that if the relatives request a delay in cremation, the prison should decide on a case by case basis, but the delay should not be more than 10 days.

The results of the prison’s investigation into Tenzin Delek’s death – if indeed there was an investigation – have never been disclosed. No autopsy is believed to have been performed. He was cremated four days after his death over the objections of his family.

Of special significance, Article 24 stipulates that if the deceased prisoner is a member of an ethnic minority, “handling of the body should respect ethnic traditions.”

I immediately informed Mandie McKeown, who confirmed receipt and advised that she would find a way to forward the regulations to the family. She succeeded in doing so. The family contacted the prison authorities right away and demanded that they act in accordance with the regulations. The authorities relented, and early on the morning of July 16, Tenzin Delek’s sister and niece, together with a small group of monks and nuns, were taken by car to Chuandong Prison. They arrived around 9 AM at this dreaded place and were allowed to enter. They were taken to a room near the crematorium.

The monks washed and anointed the body and changed his clothes from prison garb to monk’s robes. The family was able to pay its respects for about 30 minutes. Tenzin Delek was cremated at around 10 AM. The monks were entrusted with the Rinpoche’s ashes and they set out for Orthok Monastery.

They stopped at a hotel along the way to spend the night. Police raided the hotel, barged into the room, and seized Tenzin Delek’s ashes. They told the monks that the ashes would be dumped in a river. The Chinese government was determined not to allow the holy man’s remains to become a focal point of reverence or protest.

Liu Xiaobo

Two years later, almost to the day after Tenzin Delek’s death, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo – widely considered China’s top political prisoner – died of liver cancer on July 13, 2017 in Liaoning Province. He had served nearly nine years of an 11-year sentence in Jinzhou Prison for inciting subversion.

Liu Xiaobo’s final days were very different from the final days of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. Liu was granted medical parole several weeks before his death, too late to save him as it turned out. He was taken to a hospital in Shenyang where he was afforded the best treatment available. Foreign doctors – one from Germany, one from the United States – were flown in to conduct a diagnosis. His wife and immediate members of his family were permitted to stay by his side to the hour of his death.