Tibetan Political Prisoners Remain The Target of Arbitrary Detentions and Torture
Author: Arifur Rahman and Elle van der Cam
Disproportionate force, disappearances, torture, persecution of families, wrongful convictions, and imprisonment are all parts of a growing reality for Tibetans living under Chinese control. In the past 25 years, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (2021) has verified and updated the records of 5,107 prisoners in its database. Of these, 2,975 of the total prisoners were detained for religious reasons and 1,132 individuals are still currently detained. Meanwhile, the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (2020) identified records of 273 Tibetan political prisoners as of late 2019, showing the discrepancies of the actual figure. It is perceived that the number of Tibetan political prisoners is on the rise; most of the prisoners being those that have been accused by Chinese officials for supposedly resisting Chinese oppression. Many expressions of Tibetan identity are already punishable by the Chinese state, yet those not directly sanctioned by the state are also often portrayed as reactionary or inciting separatist ideals, thus deemed criminal offences. As such, Tibetans are being detained and tortured for exercising their basic cultural and religious human rights. The human rights violations include torture and cases of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment by the government such as arbitrary arrest or detention, to mention a few (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020).
Chinese officials continue to control the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and keep a tight grip by inciting fear among the Tibetan population. Heavy security presence, high police surveillance and severe restrictions on domestic and cross-border movement and information distribution are imposed on Tibetans. Of high concern is the spike in political imprisonment and widespread use of torture on Tibetans, which violates both Chinese and international laws (ICT, n.d). Although the People’s Republic of China officially prohibits torture, it has become a norm for Tibetan detainees, disguised through the emphasis on ensuring ‘stability’ and a culture of impunity among Chinese officials, paramilitary troops, and security personnel in Tibet (International Campaign for Tibet, n.d.). However, torture is a serious violation of fundamental human rights and must be publicly condemned and stopped by implementing efficient norms that prohibit it, ensuring compensation for victims and bringing those responsible to justice (International Campaign for Tibet, n.d.)
In March 2008, protests across the Tibetan plateau sparked a wave of arrests and arbitrary detention with charges never revealed and families never informed (CNN Wire Staff, 2012). To this day, arbitrarily imprisoned Tibetan monks and other peaceful critics have simply disappeared with no information released regarding their whereabouts, wellbeing, or charges (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Since 2008, Chinese authorities have taken harsher approaches to suppress dissent, with the number of Tibetan political prisoners increasing along with evidence of torture becoming more widespread and directed at a broader sector of society (International Campaign for Tibet, n.d.).
Although Chinese officials affirm that China is working against torture, there has been no evidence or investigations into allegations of torture and mistreatment, especially when it comes to Tibetans subject to arbitrary detentions (International Campaign for Tibet, n.d.). The silence on detentions of Tibetans adds onto the discriminatory policies and lawlessness of such acts by the Chinese state.
Lack of Freedoms
Tibetans across society are subject to sharp restrictions on basic rights and freedoms, religious persecution, socio-economic and political discrimination, political persecutions and torture, and mistreatment of prisoners (Human Rights Watch, 2010). China has prohibited forms of religious or political protests, even peaceful ones.
Figure 1. The Human Freedom Index 2020. Vasquez & McMahon (2020, https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/2021-03/human-freedom-index-2020.pdf).
According to the Human Freedom Index (2020), over time, human freedoms have been repressed at increasing rates in China (Vasquez & McMahon, 2020). With a score of 10 representing more freedom, the index demonstrates the decline of religious freedom in China from the highest achieved in 2013 at 5.5 to the latest data in 2018 scoring 3.3. Also illustrative is the alarmingly low score of 0.0 in 2018 when measuring ‘Freedom of Religion’ which calculates the extent of freedom of religion in society, including the right to practice and choose one’s religion and to proselytes peacefully. China’s score in ‘Religious Organizational Repression’ is also shockingly low at 2.2 in 2018 portraying the repression of religious organisations by governments.
All forms of protests are immediately treated as severe disruptions to social order that must be suppressed, often through violence, torture, and detention (Human Rights Watch, 2010). Any relation to the region’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, or the act of teaching the native Tibetan language is highly punishable due to perceived separatist ideals against the Chinese state. Tibetans are thus subject to serious restrictions on “free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship and site blocking; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on religious freedom, despite nominal constitutional protections voided by regulations restricting religious freedom and effectively placing Tibetan Buddhism under central government control; severe restrictions on freedom of movement; the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; and restrictions on political participation” (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020).
- Arbitrary Detentions
Public security agencies are legally required to notify relatives of detainees within 24 hours, yet often fail to do so when Tibetans are detained for political reasons. Loopholes in the law have resulted in persons being detained for up to 37 days without formal arrest or charges (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020). However, with cases pertaining to “national security, terrorism and major bribery”, the law permits up to six months of incommunicado detention without a formal arrest (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020). After a formal arrest, the detainee may be kept for an additional seven months while the case is investigated. Then, after the case is investigated, prosecutors can, supposedly, add another 45 days while determining the criminal charges. Once charges are filed, an additional 45 days may be imposed before judicial proceedings (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020). These are already long periods of detention, but political and religious reasons for detention have looser restrictions and thus detainees are held without trials far longer than other detainees. Authorities also hold prisoners without charges and these prisoners never pass through a court (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020).
While detained, Tibetan prisoners are subject to arbitrary deprivation of life, and other unlawful or politically motivated killings, disappearance, torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2020). According to the International Campaign for Tibet, Tibetan political prisoners have reported the use of ‘electric shocks that send them flying across the room, attacks by dogs, and sexual abuse’ (International Campaign for Tibet, n.d.). In Tibet’s most notorious prisons, Drapchi, Chushul and Deyang, political prisoners are beaten, tortured, starved, and forced to labour in inhumane conditions (Free Tibet, n.d.). Prisoners often die while detained, die shortly after being released, or are victims of suffering long term pain as a result of their detention (Free Tibet, n.d). In 2014, a young Tibetan committed suicide while detained as a protest against the torture he was subject to (International Campaign for Tibet, 2015).
Examples of Political Prisoners
There is a long list of known political prisoners, yet with the secrecy and silence of the Chinese state, the reality is that the list could be much longer. This section will highlight some notable Tibetans who have been subject to arbitrary detention and custodial torture due to their political opinion or for having voiced dissent against the government’s policy towards Tibet, among others.
Tibetan individuals taken as political prisoners. International Campaign for Tibet (www.savetibet.org/why-tibet/political-prisoners/ ).
A Tibetan tour guide named Kunchok Jinpa, who was serving a sentence of 21 years, died on February 6, 2021, in a hospital in the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. He was transferred, without the knowledge of his family, to the hospital in November 2020 (Free Tibetan Heroes, 2021). It is reported that he suffered a brain haemorrhage, was paralyzed, and died a few days later. Jinpa was arrested in 2013 and later convicted on the ground of “leaking state secrets” after sharing information to the media about the local environment and other protests (Free Tibetan Heroes, 2021). Information about his whereabouts was not found when he was detained. Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, stated that “Kunchok Jinpa’s death is yet another grim case of a wrongfully imprisoned Tibetan dying from mistreatment” (Human Rights Watch, 2021).
Tenzin Nyima, a young monk from the Dza Wonpo monastery, died because of the injuries inflicted on him while he was in prison (Free Tibet, 2021). Tenzin Nyima, also known as Tamay, was detained on November 9, 2019, that is, two days after the distribution of leaflets and shouting slogans demanding Tibetan independence outside the local Wonpo government office by him and three other Wonpo monks (Free Tibet, 2021). The reason for the occurrence of such a protest was the forcible resettlement of the nomads and local residents in order to praise the government’s “Poverty Alleviation” program (Human Rights Watch, 2021). Tenzin Nyima was released in May 2020, however, he was rearrested on 11 August because he shared the news of his arrest online (Free Tibetan Heroes, 2021). According to Human Rights Watch, Nyima was first admitted to the hospital in October 2020 and as per a hospital report, he was in a very critical condition before being handed over to his family. Later, he was discharged from the hospital as the hospital found his condition to be beyond treatment (Human Rights Watch, 2021). He was admitted into another hospital in Kandze prefecture, Dartsedo on 1 December, 2020, but he was again discharged on the ground that his condition was terminal. According to the evidence by Human Rights Watch, he was gravely ill and paralyzed by that time and died soon after he was brought home (Human Rights Watch, 2021).
Rinchen Tsultrim and Sherab Gyatso
After having recently received a letter from UN Human Rights experts, the Chinese government has affirmed the detention of two Tibetans, that is, the imprisonment and detention of Rinchen Tsultrim and Sherab Gyatso respectively (Free Tibet, 2021). Rinchen Tsultrim, who is a Tibetan monk, was arrested on August 02, 2019 in Ngaba and his whereabouts remained unknown for a certain period of time. He was accused of “inciting secession” because of his online activities, which is mostly related to his sharing of the photo of the Tibetan exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in theWeChat app (Free Tibet, 2021). On the other hand, Sherab Gyatso is a public educator who has given many public lectures and talks on the preservation of Buddhism, Tibet’s environment and its culture and language. His book focusing on various issues including Tibetan civilization and Tibetan culture has also been published (Free Tibet, 2021). While Rinchen Tsultrim has been sentenced to an imprisonment of four years and six months along with the additional deprivation of political rights on the ground of “inciting secession” and “jeopardising national unity and social stability”, the reason for the arrest of Sherab Gyatso remains ambiguous (Free Tibet, 2021). It is also reported that the detainees are deprived of communication with their respective families (International Campaign for Tibet, 2021).
Lhamo, a 36-year-old herder from Driru county in Nagchu, Tibet Autonomous Region, died in August 2020, right after she was transferred from the police custody to the local hospital (Human Rights Watch, 2020). In June 2020, she was detained after being accused of sending money to the Tibetans, including her family members living in India (Human Rights Watch, 2020). According to Free Tibet, she was in good health before her detention; however, her family found her seriously bruised and barely speaking when they were summoned to visit her in the hospital in August (Free Tibetan Heroes, 2021). Two days later, she died, and her body was cremated immediately, which, in turn, made the investigation regarding her death impossible as it prevented any medical examination (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Even though sending money to a foreign country is not a formal crime under the existing Chinese law, the authorities regard the contact between Tibetans, those who are living in Tibet and those who are abroad as “endangering national security” (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Reaction of the International Community
Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, condemned the use of torture, inhumane, and degrading treatment by state or non-state actors in any place in a discussion that was tabled 12 MEPs of the Tibet Interest Group (TIG) (Central Tibetan Administration, 2021). He also stated that the EU “has repeatedly called on China to comply with its obligations under national and international law to respect and protect human rights, including the rights of Tibetans”. In a previous EU statement, he further called “the immediate and unconditional release of all those currently imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights, as well as for fair trial and due process, and decent treatment, decent treatment, free from torture and ill treatment of those in detention” (Central Tibetan Administration, 2021).
Mark Cassayre, U.S. charge d’affaires, told the U.N. Human Rights Council that “We condemn China’s abuse of members of ethnic and religious minority groups including crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang and severe restrictions in Tibet” (Nebehay, 2021). Canada, also in an exchange at the UN human rights council, led more than 40 countries to express grave concerns over Beijing’s repressive actions in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong (The Guardian, 2021). Additionally, at the recent Geneva forum’s 4th consecutive meeting, the forum including Budapest’s Deputy Mayor of 1st district, Swiss MP Nicolas Walder, Czech Senator Jiří Oberfalzer, China was highly criticised for the worsening human rights condition in Tibet along with abuse happening in East Turkestan, Hong Kong and Macau, among other occupied regions (Phayul, 2021). Apart from that, UN Member states, to be specific, the Delegates from Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, the United States of America, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and the European Union expressed grave concern over the human rights violation in Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang at the running 48th UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session (Phayul, 2021).
The massive increase in arbitrary detention and custodial torture in Tibet has divulged the gruesome reality of Tibetans where religious and political dissidents are facing serious consequences. Arbitrary detention has become a tool to suppress the voices of Tibetans who are vocal about the government’s policies towards Tibet. Monks have been detained for their peaceful criticism and often their whereabouts remain unknown. Evidence of torture such as electric shock, dog-attack, and sexual abuse has been committed towards political prisoners in an attempt to suppress their voice during their prison time. The human rights of Tibetans, such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom of association have often witnessed serious interference and restrictions. The legal frameworks are also designed in a way that enables the detention of political and religious detainees, without a trial, for a long period of time compared to that of other detainees. However, unfortunately, there is no evidence that would support the claim of the mistreatment and the torture of Tibetans, especially those who are arbitrarily detained, as they have not been subject to any investigation. Accordingly, it contradicts China’s promise to work against torture and, once again, shows the picture of how the human rights of Tibetan prisoners are diminishing day by day.
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