Fears for school founder in prison

Gyatso Home in Tibet

Children at the Gyatso Home in Tibet playing with balloons.

There are concerns for the health and safety of a senior Tibetan teacher and Rinpoche who has been serving a life sentence since 1999, in one of the most serious political cases in Tibet in recent years. Thirty-nine year old Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche (or Jigme Tenzin Nyima), the founder of the Gyatso children’s home and school, was sentenced on charges of ‘attempting to split the country’ in 1999. He has been hospitalized at least once during his sentence, and an eyewitness report describes him as being shackled to a bed by the wrists and ankles in a solitary ward, although he was too weak to move.

The case appears to reflect a harder line trend by the authorities in Tibet of undermining local community leadership by singling out for severe punishment individuals who have been involved with work focusing on Tibetan language, culture and religion.

Because the authorities in Tibet have taken such strong measures to prevent information about the case reaching the outside world – including the intimidation of Tibetans involved – full information about the sentencing of Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and other individuals involved in the case has not been available until now. Differing reports on the sentencing of the Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron (Chinese transliteration: Nima Quzhen), have been given over the past five years to Western governments seeking to clarify details of the case with Chinese officials. The school was supported by at least two charities and individual donors based in the US and UK, and Bangri Rinpoche was accused at his trial of links to ‘splittist’ foreign organizations.

The imprisonment of Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and his partner Nyima Choedron, a 37-year old former nun who is serving seven and a half years in prison, was linked by the Chinese authorities to an attempt by a Tibetan construction worker at the school to raise the Tibetan flag in the main square in Lhasa and to blow himself up with explosives. Gyatso, the school and home for children managed by Bangri Chogtrul and Nyima, was closed and other staff arrested and imprisoned after the same incident.

Sources now in exile say that although senior US officials and former foreign donors to the school were assured that the children were being cared for in other homes after the Gyatso school’s closure, many of them were left to beg on the streets of Lhasa with nowhere to go.

A member of staff who was arrested and imprisoned, a nun now in her forties, has recounted how she was dragged away from the school by security police with children clinging to her legs and begging the police not to take her away. She was beaten and tortured in custody.

Several staff from the Gyatso school, and relatives of the late Tashi Tsering, the Tibetan who carried out the protest in the Potala Square, were also imprisoned following the incident and have now been released. Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and his partner Nyima Choedron, a 37-year old former nun, remain in prison – Nyima is serving a ten-year sentence at Drapchi which has been reduced twice to a total of seven years and six months.

The trial and imprisonment of Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche

There are serious concerns for Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s health and welfare following his arrest on August 27 1999 on suspicion of ‘endangering national security’. On September 26 2000, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche (Chinese transliteration: Jinmei Danzeng Nima, aka Renbuqin) was sentenced to life for ‘the crime of attempting to split the country’, with his prison term starting on the day this judgment went into effect.

Reports from Tibet indicate that Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche has been severely weakened physically by his imprisonment. A person who visited him and who is now living in exile told the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) that he was hospitalized for a period in November 2002: ‘He was shackled to the bed by his wrists and his ankles, although he was too weak to move anyway. There was no one else in the ward apart from prison guards, who were very hostile. He didn’t seem to know exactly what treatment he needed or what was being done, but he was in a lot of pain with his stomach. He was scared to have an operation as he didn’t trust the treatment he was receiving and had been treated so badly.’

All of the arrests of staff and the closure of the Gyatso school and home were linked by the authorities to an incident on 26 August 1999 when a Tibetan building contractor in his thirties called Tashi Tsering made an attempt to pull down the Chinese national flag and to raise the Tibetan ‘snow lion’ flag, which is banned in Tibet, in the Potala Square. Tashi Tsering then attempted to detonate explosives attached to his body, with the intention of killing himself, which failed due to rain. The incident occurred three days after the completion of the National Minority Games in Lhasa, which were promoted by the authorities as an expression of Chinese national unity in the buildup to the October 1 anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.

Tashi Tsering was detained by four or five security police who reportedly beat him so badly that his hands and feet may have been broken, and his arm fractured. His head was struck against the back of the vehicle, and by the time he was dragged into the police van he was unable to walk1. Tashi Tsering was charged in October 1999 and according to an official report given by the Chinese authorities to a Western government, he killed himself in his cell on February 10 20002. Unofficial confirmation of the circumstances of his death could not be obtained. It is known that he was maltreated severely while in detention.

Soon after Tashi Tsering’s protest, a number of his relatives and associates were arrested and detained for temporary periods. Most of the staff from the Gyatso school, many of whom were known and trusted by several US and UK donors, were charged and sentenced to prison terms of varying length or served terms of ‘re-education through labour’ (laojiao)3.

The authorities charged Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche with conspiring in a ‘plot’ with Tashi Tsering to carry out the protest. He was said to have ‘enthusiastically supported Zha Xi [Tashi]’s plot’ and given him ‘80,000 yuan [$9,880] payment’ to carry it out. Tashi Tsering worked as a builder for the Gyatso school and ICT has received confirmation that he had been paid to repair the roof, and that funds had been set aside for the building of a second orphanage. The authorities also claimed that Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche encouraged Tashi Tsering to meet Tibetan officials from the Tibetan government-in-exile in India, which Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche has denied. His trial was closed to the public.

The authorities also accused Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche of links with ‘splittist’ foreign organizations. Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche had traveled to India and the US during the 1990s to raise funds for his school project, which was funded by at least three organizations, including two charities in the UK and two American groups of sponsors.

There are parallels in the case of Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche, a respected figure in the local community who was providing education, welfare and a home for more than 60 children, with the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, the senior religious leader also from Kham whose death sentence was commuted to life in January4. Both cases appear to reflect a harder-line trend of undermining local community leadership by singling out for severe punishment individuals who have been involved with work focusing on Tibetan language, culture and religion. Both Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche were non-political in their approach, and not known to speak out about Tibetan independence. The authorities have blocked attempts by Western governments engaged in human rights dialogue with China to gain information about both detainees5.

The Gyatso school – a ‘warm and caring atmosphere’

Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche, one of eight children from Nangchen (Chinese: Nangqian), Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai, was recognized by the late 10th Panchen Lama as the reincarnation of a Rinpoche from Kongpo (Chinese: Nyingtri) prefecture in the south-east of the TAR. The Rinpoche’s monastery, Bangri monastery in Kongpo, had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche sought official permission to reconstruct the building. Together with local people, a prayer and assembly hall was constructed, but local officials denied permission to reconstruct the entire monastery.

Soon afterwards, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche set up an English language school in the central Barkhor area of Lhasa for young unemployed Tibetans to provide them with skills to gain employment. Students who could not afford tuition fees were not charged. Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron, from Nyemo (Chinese: Nimo) county in Lhasa Municipality, became a couple at this time, and set up the Gyatso school and home in Lhasa in the mid-1990s in the Norbulingka area. Prior to their arrest, they had been planning to set up a second home and school for children in Lhasa.

The Gyatso Children’s Home housed and provided welfare and schooling for about 60 children between the ages of three and 15, many of whom were orphans, and others whose parents were unable to provide care for them for reasons including poverty or social difficulties. The school taught Tibetan, Chinese, English, Tibetan thangka painting, song and dance, mathematics and drawing, and was run with the help of donations from the local community as well as from overseas charities, which ran sponsorship programs for the children. Foreign donors confirmed to ICT that the school always appeared to be well-run under Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima’s leadership.

One of the Western donors to the school, who visited in autumn 1998, told ICT: ‘The home had a warm, caring atmosphere. The children were happy and smiling, wore clean (if but shabby) clothes and seemed to enjoy their lessons. They were taught Chinese – as well as Tibetan, English, math, art and so on. The children seemed genuinely fond of Rinpoche and Nyima, rushing up to them smiling and jumping on them for a hug. And both Rinpoche and Nyima seemed committed to making the children’s lives better.’ The same Western donor said that the school also cared for children with severe health problems or handicaps – for instance one child had a seriously deformed chest, and another had learning difficulties. The same donor said: ‘The numbers were officially 60, but more came by the day. [Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima] did not have the space or facilities to house them, which is one of the reasons they had hoped to expand and have a new premises.’ Another supporter who visited the school reported that the dormitories were very crowded, and that three children slept in each bunk, while the classrooms were so filled with desks that it was difficult to walk between the rows. ‘Even so, the high level of the children’s maths and written English and Tibetan script really surprised us and their genuine enthusiasm was a joy to see,’ said the donor.

Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche had visited India at least once in the 1990s, and just a month before his arrest, he had traveled to the US on a fundraising trip for the school, following an invite from a US sponsor. During his trial, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche was accused of ‘accepting a large amount of foreign funding’. The court stated: ‘Correspondence between the Jiacuo [Gyatso] School and foreign contacts and receipts of money received, foreign money remittance orders, bank records of remittances, telephone inquiry lists, search notes and reactionary publications all confirm that the Jiacuo School had a close relationship with foreign organizations, that it had accepted large amounts of foreign funding and that it also accepted reactionary publications from external splittist forces.’

On the evening of August 27, a day after Tashi Tsering’s protest in the Potala Square, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron were taken to the local police station for questioning. That evening he was allowed to make a call to the home, and told staff to take care of the children and to feed them properly. Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s older sister, 44-year old nun Dechen Choezom who worked at the school as a house-mother, was so frightened by the implications of her brother’s detention that she burnt some letters and documents from sponsors, fearing that the police might make up false stories about connections to ‘splittist’ organizations overseas.

Dechen Choezom, known as ‘Ani (nun) Dechen’, was to be sentenced on September 16 2000 to three years imprisonment, charged with ‘destroying evidence’. She was released on October 17 2002.

Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron were held at the Lhasa Public Security Bureau No 7 Detention Center prior to their transfer to Drapchi prison (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison) after sentencing. The Lhasa Municipal People’s Procuratorate stated in their evidence against Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche that he and Nyima Choedron had ‘enthusiastically supported Zha Xi (Tashi)’s plot and gave him 80,000 yuan payment under the name of “engineering fees”‘. In his defense, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche stated that he did not engage in a ‘pre-meditated plot with Zha Xi for him to go to the square and change the flag’ and that he did not give Zha Xi 80,000 yuan in the name of ‘engineering fees’, but gave him this money for building housing.

Prior to their arrests, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima had been involved in refurbishing and repairing the school, and had found a building lot for a second home to house more children in need. Tashi Tsering was a well-known local building contractor from Lhokha prefecture (Chinese: Shannan) in the TAR who had been involved in construction work for the Gyatso school. Previously, Tashi Tsering had won an award from the local community for his work in creating new buildings and furniture for a school near Sera monastery. Foreign donors confirmed to ICT that in 1998 they had provided funds specifically for Tashi Tsering to repair the roof of the school. Another foreign sponsor confirmed that in June 1999 they had visited the area of land where the new school was to be built, and had discussed how a pre-existing brick wall could be taken down and moved so as to enlarge the play yard for the children. The same donor said: ‘Since Tashi Tsering was known to have done construction work for the Gyatso children’s home in the past a budget line item of fees from Bangri Rinpoche to Tashi Tsering would have been seen by foreign sponsors as appropriate and the next correct step in the process of building the second orphanage – up-front deposits for construction work would be perfectly normal in most of the world.’

Also in his defence, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche stated that he took the children into the school because some parents did not take care of their children, and as a result children ended up stealing things or begging on the streets. He said: ‘At the time, the school had asked the Lhasa Municipal Government for instructions, and many city leaders visited the school. We taught the children Tibetan, Han and English. We urged them to support the Communist Party – From this, you can see that I did not run the school for the sake of Tibetan independence.’

Nyima Choedron, who is described by former prisoners who knew her in Drapchi as highly educated and fluent in English, Chinese and Tibetan, has had her sentence reduced twice, by 18 months in 2003, and by another year in February 2004. She spent approximately one year in solitary confinement when she first arrived at Drapchi. She is reportedly assigned light manual labor (knitting) but her eyesight is poor and she may have other more serious medical concerns. According to official information given to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation by Beijing, Nyima Choedron is now due for release on February 26 2007.

Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron have a daughter, who was a baby at the time of their arrest, and is being cared for by a member of the family in Tibet.

Tashi Tsering’s partner, Lhadron (Chinese transliteration: La Zhen) from Lhasa, was sentenced to two years in prison for the crime of ‘protecting criminals and covering up criminal acts’, because she had apparently failed to report Tashi Tsering’s actions to the police before he carried out his protest. Lhadron’s release date was August 25 2001. Lhadron had appealed to the court that she had three children at home, with no one to look after them.

A relative of Tashi Tsering, Nyima, who is in his late forties, from Lhokha (Chinese: Shannan) prefecture, TAR, was arrested under suspicion that he might have had prior knowledge of Tashi Tsering’s plan to lower the Chinese flag. He served one year and six months in prison for ‘the crime of protecting criminals and covering up criminal acts’.

Thirty-eight year old Choedron (Chinese: Qu Zhen), from Shigatse, a friend of Tashi Tsering, was also charged with the ‘crime of protecting criminals and covering up criminal acts’, and sentenced to two years in prison from August 26 1999. Choedron had admitted during interrogation that she knew about Tashi Tsering’s plan to carry out the protest in the Potala Square.

The arrest of staff and closure of the school

Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s elder sister Dechen Choezom, a former nun from Yangchenling nunnery in Nangchen who had worked as a house-mother at Gyatso school since 1996, recalls that following the detention of Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima on the evening of 26 August 1999, police came to guard the gate of the school. The next day, several police arrived to conduct a search of the school, taking a letter by the 10th Panchen Lama recognizing Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and other documents and photographs. Two days later, they detained Dechen Choezom.

She told ICT: ‘The children tried to prevent them taking me away – they clung to my legs and pleaded with the police. They were crying and saying, “don’t take away our mother.” They put me in a cell and beat me very badly. I thought I was going to die. They kept interrogating me, saying that I was Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s family, so I must know all the family secrets. I told them that my brother wasn’t a splittist. Sometimes they beat me with electric shock batons and I fell unconscious. Due to the torture my health deteriorated and I suffered from stomach problems and back pain.’

Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron are the only two staff members of the Gyatso home to remain in detention. Other members of staff who were imprisoned after August 26 and who have now been released include Gelel Nyima, a monk and thangka painter in his forties, who was the art teacher at Gyatso, and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Thubten Dargyal, who was from the same area of Kham as Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche, was also sentenced to three years in prison. Karma Yeshi, a nun in her forties who was a house mother at Gyatso, was also born in Kham, in the same area as Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche. She is believed to have been imprisoned for three years. Khadija, a Tibetan who had lived in exile prior to becoming an English teacher at Gyatso, was reportedly detained for a year and a half. It was not possible to confirm details of the detention of Dawa Dondrub, from Toelung Dechen (Duilongdeqing) county in the Lhasa area, one of the senior teachers at Gyatso. At least six other Tibetans, who were either relatives or associates of Tashi Tsering, Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche and Nyima Choedron, were temporarily detained following Tashi Tsering and Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s arrests.

The Gyatso children

Following the detention of school staff, security personnel froze the accounts of the Gyatso school and closed the building. Virtually all of the children were thrown onto the streets with nowhere to go. Some of them were taken into temporary custody and questioned. According to reliable reports from Lhasa, it was only when local officials expressed their concern about the psychological intimidation of the children that police stopped questioning them.

The Chinese authorities told the US government and foreign funders that the children were well looked after following the closure of the school. Reports received by ICT suggest otherwise; according to sources who are now in exile, several former Gyatso children have been seen begging in the streets of Lhasa in recent years, without homes to go to.

One of the former pupils of the home, Rigzin Dorjee, who is now in exile in India and who was 11 when the Gyatso school closed down, said: ‘After August 26 1999 our teachers and staff were arrested one by one. On October 17 1999 the army and police came to our school. All of the children were taken on the pretext of a medical checkup. My friend Tenzin and I were taken to an office in Nagchu. The staff working there told us that we would be admitted to school. We were given food but never admitted to any school. We were kept in the office for 15 days without any work.’6 Rigzin Dorjee said that he had stayed at the Chinese office in the hopes of being sent to school again, but this did not happen. He went to Lhasa where he met several former school-friends: ‘Their condition was extremely poor. Tamdin Wangyal and Rigzin Dhondup were roaming in the streets of Lhasa. Tamdin Wangyal’s clothes were all torn and old. Bhutima was shelling sun-flower seeds in a bowl and selling them. Chonzom, Norzom and Tsesung were earning their living by picking paper and plastic from the garbage and selling it.’

Wangchen Choegyal, another former pupil at the Gyatso school who was ten at the time of the arrests, is also now in exile. He was taken in by Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche as a student after his father died in an accident and his mother died from illness. He told Gu Chu Sum: ‘I got the opportunity for study and a loving home at Gyatso school. Foster mother Ani [nun in Tibetan] Dechen Choezom took care of the children, and we saw her as our own mother. When the army and police came, I was sent to my relatives, but they did not have sufficient means to support me. I was once again on the streets of Lhasa with no place to go. After living on the streets for a long time, a very kind-hearted Tibetan helped me by sending me to India to study.’7

Dechen Choezom told ICT: ‘Before I left Tibet, I saw with my own eyes that some of the children we cared for at Gyatso were still on the streets of Lhasa and are very poor, without education or a home. My family and our children’s home has been broken apart, and I am particularly fearful for my brother in prison. He was not a splittist – he simply felt he was doing his duty as a Tibetan by helping to provide education and a home for children.’


1 The policeman on traffic duty who initially apprehended Tashi Tsering was later congratulated by the authorities for his contribution to public security (Tibet Information Network, 13 October 1999)

2 It was stated during Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s trial that ‘Zha Xi’ (Tashi Tsering) ‘committed suicide to escape punishment’. This information and other material in this report giving details of his trial and sentencing are quoted from a copy obtained by ICT of the criminal court judgment by the Tibet Autonomous Region Lhasa Municipal Intermediate People’s Court, September 26, 2000 (La Xing Chu no 52, 2000).

3 Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche’s sister, Dechen Choezom, gives an account of these arrests in ‘The Tragic Fate of Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche, Nyima Choedron and the Gyatso Orphange School’, published in English by the Gu Chu Sum Movement of Tibet (ex-political prisoners association based in Dharamsala, India), 2005, www.guchusum.org. Prisoners who serve terms in re-education through labor centers are sentenced administratively by officials of the Bureau of Re-education through Labour

4 For details on this case see ‘Trials of a Tibetan monk: the case against Tenzin Delek’ at http://hrw.org/reports/2004/china0204/ and ‘The Execution of Lobsang Dondrub and the Case Against Tenzin Delek: The Law, the Courts, and the Debate on Legality’, a paper by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China at http://www.cecc.gov/pages/news/lobsang.php

5 Comparisons have been drawn between Bangri Chogtrul and Tenzin Delek by some Tibetans. The Tibetan writer Oezer writes the following in her poem, Secrets of Tibet: ‘Yet, I do know two serious cases of prisoners still in jail/both of them tulkus [incarnated lamas] and Khampas from the East/ Jigme Tenzin and Angang Tashi or Bangri Tenzin Delek/ these are their names from birth and their dharma names/As if the forgotten password is recalled/these names push open the high gates of recent memory once closely guarded.'(‘Secrets of Tibet, new poem by Oser’, Tibet Information Network, 9 February 2005, http://www.tibetinfo.net/news-updates/2005/0902.htm)

6 Gu Chu Sum report 2005 as quoted earlier

7 Ibid

 

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