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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China cremates body of revered Tibetan monk, ignoring international appeals

July 20, 2015

New York Times, July 16, 2015 - The authorities in southwest China on Thursday cremated the body of a prominent Tibetan monk who died in prison last week, ignoring the pleas of relatives, religious leaders and thousands of supporters who had demanded that they be allowed to carry out funeral rites integral to Tibetan Buddhism.

Relatives of the monk, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, said prison officials in Sichuan Province had brushed aside their requests and hastily cremated his body early Thursday, a move likely to exacerbate protests that have already turned violent in recent days.

“I think they were afraid people would see the body and know that it was not a natural death,” a cousin, Geshe Jamyang Nyima, said in a Skype interview.

Rights advocates have been calling for an investigation into the death of Tenzin Delek, a community leader who had been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism and incitement of separatism. During his 13 years in prison, Tenzin Delek repeatedly maintained his innocence, saying accusations that he had orchestrated a series of bomb blasts in 2002 were fabricated by officials unhappy with his growing public stature.

Alarmed by accounts of his failing health, family members in recent years had been petitioning Beijing to grant Tenzin Delek medical parole, a campaign that drew support from Tibetan exile groups, Western governments and thousands of his followers in China. This week, the State Department and the European Union called on the Chinese government to release his body.

Prison officials in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but relatives say they have repeatedly declined to give a cause of death.

Family members say that Tenzin Delek was in good health before his arrest, but that he had developed a heart ailment they attribute to the abuse they say he suffered while in custody.

“From their earliest efforts at harassing him, all the way through to their disposal of his body, Chinese authorities’ treatment of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche has demonstrated utter contempt for their own laws and for religious traditions,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. “To have allowed someone who had been tortured and denied medical care to die in detention is the height of cruelty.”

Tenzin Delek was one of China’s most high-profile political prisoners, and his death and hasty cremation are likely to aggravate tensions in a region already bristling with anti-government sentiment.

On Monday, the police were said to have fired tear gas and live ammunition into a crowd of more than a thousand people who had gathered outside government offices in Nyagchuka, a largely Tibetan town in Sichuan where Tenzin Delek had once lived. More than a dozen people were wounded, according to Students for a Free Tibet, an overseas advocacy group that reported the confrontation.

Geshe Jamyang Nyima, the cousin, said prison officials had allowed Tenzin Delek’s sisters to view his body Thursday morning shortly before it was cremated at a secret prison outside Chengdu. “They found that his lips and his fingernails had turned black,” said the cousin, who lives in exile in India and is in frequent phone contact with one of the sisters. “To us, it is clear he has been murdered.”

Tenzin Delek was a revered figure among Tibetans in Sichuan, where he helped build medical clinics, schools and monasteries. He was also known as an environmentalist who opposed mining and deforestation.

But his promotion of Tibetan language and culture — and his devoted following among local residents — made Chinese officials uncomfortable, according to Padma Dolma, campaigns director for Students for a Free Tibet. “He wasn’t involved in political activities, which is why it was such a shock when he was arrested and charged with conspiring to plant a bomb,” she said.

After his arrest — and a secret trial — Tenzin Delek became known beyond Sichuan. After international rights advocates campaigned for his release, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, though a co-defendant was executed in 2003.

Robert Barnett, director of the modern Tibet studies program at Columbia University, said the Chinese government had been quietly granting medical parole to ill Tibetan prisoners, including 17 over the past two years. But given Tenzin Delek’s popularity, he said, the authorities may have feared public celebrations over his release.

“That he was allowed to die in prison is really quite extraordinary,” he said. “It’s something that is going to be very strongly felt in Tibetan communities.”

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