Tibetans sentenced to long prison terms for involvement in Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebration

The Dalai Lama’s birthday is celebrated in northern Tibet.

Nine Tibetans have been handed sentences ranging from five to 14 years in prison for their involvement in celebrations for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday last year. Several of the Tibetans sentenced on December 6 in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) have been imprisoned and tortured before, linked to the protests and self-immolations that have occurred in the area since 2008. Three senior Kirti monks, including a scholar close to the completion of his Geshe degree and the manager of the medical college at the monastery, received the longest sentences of between 12 and 14 years each. Tibetans had been held incommunicado for months without family or friends knowing their whereabouts, according to two Kirti monks in Dharamsala, India.

In the group sentencing, Drugdra, a 50 year old Kirti monk who has served more than a year in prison following the 2008 protests, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Monk and scholar Lobsang Khedrub, who had been released from prison from an earlier sentence in 2011 due to severe ill-health – probably due to maltreatment and torture – was sentenced to 13 years. Another of the Tibetans sentenced has already spent time in prison after being linked to one of the self-immolations at Kirti monastery. The wave of self-immolations across Tibet began when a Kirti monk called Tapey set himself on fire in 2009.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The length of these sentences, imposed on Tibetans who have already experienced profound trauma from earlier imprisonment, is staggering. Handing down such harsh sentences to people who were simply marking the birthday of their much-loved religious leader, is a blatant violation of basic human rights that governments around the world should denounce without hesitation. The U.S. Congress just passed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which when signed into law by President Obama, will strengthen provisions to protect religious freedom worldwide, including in Tibet”.

The length of the sentences is all the more striking given that the birthday celebrations involved were apparently very low-key. Kirti monastery, where the monks sentenced to nine to 14 years were from, is under lockdown and close surveillance, so major commemorations for the Dalai Lama would not have been possible there. The sentences follow previous incidents connected to the Dalai Lama’s birthday in which Tibetans have been arrested although not sentenced to such long terms. Notably in 2013, in Tawu in eastern Tibet, police opened fire on Tibetans peacefully celebrating the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday. The Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, which took place last year, was regarded as particularly meaningful for Tibetans.

The Tibetans sentenced in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo), on December 6, 2016 include four Kirti monks – Drugdra, age 50, Lobsang Khedrub, 44, Lobsang Gephel, 29, and Lodro, 41 – and five laypeople, Bonkho Kyi, age 48, Akyakya, 35, Trotsik Tsultrim, 33, Tsulte, 32, and Ta’re Kyi. Kirti monastery in Ngaba has suffered from repeated Chinese crackdowns after a 2008 protest resulted in as many as 20 demonstrators being shot to death by Chinese police, and it later became the epicenter of the Tibetan self-immolation protests.

Several of the laypeople have also been arrested before, including Bonkho Kyi, who was arrested in both 2011 and 2012. Another, Akyakya, was arrested in 2011 after being linked to a self-immolation protest, and spent three years in prison.

Police repression intensified across Tibet in advance of the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama. It was marked nonetheless in ceremonies in monasteries, the grasslands and in the heart of Lhasa, despite the dangers of punitive actions from the Chinese government for Tibetans who participated.

Details of the sentences have been provided by the Kirti monks in Dharamsala, India, and are as follows:

Drugdra

Drugdra, a 50 year old Kirti monk, was sentenced to 14 years on December 6 (2016). He was arrested from his room at the monastery one night at the end of November last year, and his whereabouts have been unknown since then. He is presumed to have been arrested because of suspicion that he arranged celebrations for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, according to exile Kirti monk Kanyag Tsering. Drugda is a former political prisoner, arrested after 2008 and imprisoned for a year and four months. He is from Soruma, in Ngaba county.

Lobsang Khedrub

Losang Khedrub, age 44, another Kirti monk, was sentenced to 13 years. He was arrested and detained at the end of last year, and his whereabouts have been unknown since then. According to the same Tibetan sources, his arrest may have been linked to a voice message about setting up a group to keep a record of pujas (Buddhist rituals) to be carried out for the Dalai Lama’s long life at the time of his 80th birthday. He was previously arrested in 2011 and sentenced to three years, but he became very ill in prison and had to be released early. He improved a little after a long period of medical treatment paid for by his family members and associates. He is from the Chukle Gabma area of Ngaba county, and joined the monastery at a young age. He was near completion of his Geshe degree, the highest level of scholastic achievement for a Buddhist monk.

Lobsang Gephel

Lobsang Gephel, a 29 year old Kirti monk, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was taken from his room at the monastery on the night of November 30, 2015, and until last month his whereabouts have not been known. His disappearance followed an earlier period of imprisonment from May 2011; he had been released a few months early from a three-year sentence at the end of 2013. Political prisoners are often released early because they are in poor health, and because the authorities prefer them not to die in prison. .He is from Village No. 2 in the Me’uruma area of Ngaba county, and is the eldest of nine children. He joined the monastery at a young age and before his arrest was a manager of the medical college.

Lodro

Lodro was sentenced to nine years in prison after being held incommunicado for a year.

Lodro, a 41 year old Kirti monk, was sentenced to nine years. He was arrested from the monastery at the end of last year, and his whereabouts have not been known about until now. He had served an earlier sentence of two years following his arrest in 2011. Lodrois from Shongwa village in Andu area of Ngaba county, and his father is Dukko, a famous painter.

Ta’re Kyi

Ta’re Kyi, a laywoman, was sentenced to eight years; further details are not yet known.

Bonkho Kyi

Bonkho Kyi, a 48 year old resident of Lhade Gabma, was sentenced to seven years. She was arrested around November 20 2015, and her whereabouts have been unknown since then. According to the same Tibetan sources, she is believed to have been convicted on the basis of arranging celebrations for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Earlier she was arrested in 2011 and 2012 and detained for a few months. Her relatives used various means to get her released, but she remained under surveillance.

Tsultrim (Trotsik Tsultrim)

Tsultrim (also referred to Trotsik Tsultrim, after his hometown of Dowa village in the Trotsik area of Ngaba) was sentenced to six years. He used to be a monk at Trotsik monastery, and is in his early thirties. According to the same sources, he was arrested in October last year, but for several months his whereabouts were not known. Tsultrim was a monk at Trotsik monastery from an early age, and in 2008 when a group of 6 Trotsik monks were sentenced, he was sentenced to one year and nine months.

Tsultrim (Tsulte)

Another man named Tsultrim, also known as Tsulte, was sentenced to six years as well. He was arrested around November 25th 2015, and was missing for months. He was sentenced to one year and six months for protesting in 2008. He is 32 years old and comes from Lhade Gongma. His mother’s name is Trapo. He used to be a Kirti monk, but disrobed, married and has two young children.

Akyakya

Akyakya, age 35, sentenced to five years. Time of arrest not known. He was arrested in 2011 for demonstrating at the time of Losang Puntsok’s self-immolation protest, and imprisoned for 3 years. He is from village no.1 in Me’ururma, and he used to be a Kirti monk.

Losang Sonam

In a separate case, 23 year old Kirti monk Losang Sonam was sentenced to six years by the Trochu (Chinese: Heishui) county court on November 9 (2016), and is now in Mianyang prison. He was arrested by Ngaba police in the county town on September 11, 2015, and nothing more was known of his whereabouts. According to sources, he was arrested on suspicion of posting Tibet movement-related text and images on the web. He is from Kharsar village no.2 in lower Ngaba, and is the eldest of four children. He became a Kirti monk at a young age.

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