Over a thousand Tibetans gathered on Monday in Sichuan province’s Nyagchuka county to mourn the death in prison of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, an influential and well-respected Buddhist monk, with Chinese security forces at one point firing shots to disperse protesters, Tibetan sources in the region and in exile said.
Though police opened fire “to control the crowd,” there were no immediate reports of injuries in the incident, a Tibetan living in Australia told RFA’s Tibetan Service, citing local contacts.
Separately, the India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) confirmed that shots had been fired near government offices in Nyagchuka (in Chinese, Yajiang) county’s Thang Karma township.
“The security forces shot at the Tibetans. They also lobbed teargas shells to disperse the crowd,” TCHRD said on July 13, quoting a source.
“Security forces have been deployed in the area and the road between Lithang [Litang] and Nyagchuka counties has been blocked. Travel to the area has been strictly restricted,” TCHRD added.
The protesters had gathered to demand the return to Nyagchuka of the body of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, whose unexplained death at age 65 in the 13th year of a life sentence in prison was revealed by Tibetan sources and confirmed by local Chinese authorities on July 12.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who was widely popular among Tibetans for his efforts to protect Tibetan culture and the environment, had been imprisoned since 2002 following what rights groups and supporters described as a wrongful conviction on a bombing charge.
His initial death sentence in the case was later commuted to life imprisonment, but an assistant, Lobsang Dondrub, was executed almost immediately, prompting an outcry from rights activists who questioned the fairness of the trial.
Two of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s sisters had traveled two weeks ago to Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu to visit him in prison, but they were repeatedly blocked by authorities in their attempts to see him, a Tibetan living in Australia told RFA.
“They were told that they could see him next day, or next Monday, or next Sunday, and so on,” RFA’s source said, citing contacts in his native town in the region.
“On July 12, the Chinese authorities told them that they could see Rinpoche at 11:00 a.m., but they were then informed at about 12:00 noon that he had passed away,” the source said.
Lack of information
A relative living in South India meanwhile voiced frustration at the lack of information surrounding the well-respected monk’s death, noting that family members had been able to visit him in prison only once, in November 2013.
“Nobody can say for sure whether Rinpoche died this year or last year, or even where he died,” the source, Geshe Lobsang Yonten, told RFA.
“During the last two years, no one was allowed to see him,” he said.
When last seen by his family, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had shown signs of ill health, the Washington-based rights group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said in a July 13 statement.
“They found out that he had had some sort of heart problem, possibly a heart attack, that part of his body was shaking uncontrollably, and that he had lost consciousness on numerous occasions,” ICT said.
ICT added that before being taken into custody in 2002, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had founded schools for nomad children and homes for the elderly, had worked to protect local forests, and was well-known for his efforts to preserve and promote Tibetan culture—activities that may have brought him into conflict with local authorities.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death is a “shocking development,” Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett said.
“This is a case where the authorities never produced any credible evidence in response to widespread doubts about the charges laid against him,” Barnett said.
Reported by Guru Choegyi, Lobsang Choephel, Norbu Damdul, and Kunsang Tenzin for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.