Katmandu – More details have emerged about the torture and maltreatment of 18 Tibetans who were forcibly repatriated by Nepal to Chinese authorities in May 2003. Former inmates from the prison cells in Shigatse, Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), have recounted incidents where the 18 deportees were shocked with electric batons, repeatedly kicked in the genitals and forced to stand naked outside for four to five hours at a time, three to four times a week.

One former inmate recalled prison guards beating members of the group of 18 Tibetans while yelling, “Think about why you tried to go and see the Dalai Lama.”

Another former inmate in the same prison told the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), “When they put the electric cattle prod in my mouth, you could feel it through your entire body and you faint from the pain.”

As of mid-October, two of the 18 Tibetans deported were still in prison, according to former prisoners who were in the Shigatse Prison. Dorje, one of the remaining 18 deportees, was in poor health and deteriorating at the time of their release, according to former prisoners. Dorje is reportedly from Litang in Kandze Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province.

ICT has learned that 16 of the 18 deportees were only released after relatives or friends bribed local authorities, in addition to paying a 1,800 yuan fine (approximately US$220). The bribes are estimated to have been between US$400-620, according to ICT sources in Shigatse.

The entire group of 18 deportees was believed to have been taken to a prison in Shigatse after spending 11 days in a prison in Nyalam at the Tibet-Nepal border in the first part of April 2003. However, ICT has learned that four males from the group spent just over a month quarantined in Nyalam Prison, as Chinese officials reportedly believed they were carrying the SARS virus.

Immediately after the deportation on May 31, 2003, Chinese officials segregated the four Tibetans suspected of carrying SARS and held them in solitary cells. A western human rights monitor who witnessed the May deportations from the Nepal side of the border told ICT that there were at least a dozen personnel in white masks and gowns just over the Friendship Bridge waiting for the group. A Tibetan source in Shigatse told ICT, “The four who they thought had SARS weren’t treated as badly as the others because the guards did not want to touch them.”

No reports have surfaced as to whether or not the inmates had the virus, leading to suspicions that Chinese authorities used SARS as an excuse for increasing the detention length of certain prisoners.

The 14 Tibetans that were not quarantined received extensive beatings and torture while held at Nyalam, former prisoners from Nyalam reported to ICT. The deportees were reportedly beaten badly and tortured with electric batons. Former prisoners also reported that some of the 18 deported refugees were subjected to torture methods that included having sewing needles inserted in between their finger nails and flesh, which in one case was reportedly done to revive one of the 18 who was unconscious.

The torture did not stop once the deportees were moved from Nyalam to prison in Shigatse. Reports have reached ICT from former inmates of the Shigatse prison that described in detail the various kinds of torture used there. These include beatings with electric batons and rubber tubing, extensive beatings and repeated kicking of males in the testicles, and long periods of time standing naked out of doors.

A Tibetan who spent time in the Shigatse prisons last year after being caught while trying to flee Tibet told ICT, “The cruelest person in prison is a Tibetan they call Phuntsok. He would beat us without any reason whatsoever and I was told that he killed a prisoner a few years back.”

Former prisoners have told ICT that Chinese are more likely to be present during interrogation sessions but those carrying out the torture are more often ethnic Tibetans. The identities of Tibetan prison guards regarded as particularly sadistic are known in Tibetan communities but reprisals against them are apparently rare.

After spending a month in Nyalam prison, the four Tibetans suspected of SARS infections joined the rest of the group in a prison in Shigatse. The prison where they were taken, officially named “Tibet’s New Reception Center,” holds Tibetans caught attempting to flee into exile as well as Tibetans who are returning to Tibet after going to school or visiting family in Nepal and India. ICT released information concerning this new prison in December 2003. Photos of the new prison are available from ICT.

According to former inmates, there were approximately 300 prisoners in detention at the new Shigatse prison in June 2003 and in November there were an estimated 450 to 500. Nearly all of the prisoners are Tibetans who have been caught at the Nangpa pass or near the Friendship Bridge border crossing near Dram, the main commercial border crossing into Nepal from Tibet.

On December 28, 2003, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that China’s highest executive authorities, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, head of the State Council, and Jiang Zemin, chairman of the Central Military Commission, conferred an honorary title of ‘Model Frontier Police Substation’ on the Pali Border Police Substation under the Shigatse Detachment of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Public Security and Border Defense Corps. The story mentions specifically that the title was given because of the border guards “safeguarding [of] the motherland’s unification and peace in the border areas.”

“Why do China’s top leaders praise those responsible for the torture of Tibetans seeking a safe haven,” said John Ackerly, President of ICT, “when instead they should be ordering a judicial inquiry of this pattern of brutal torture?”

Background information

Approximately 2,500 Tibetan refugees escape into exile annually, traveling through Nepal en route to India. Human rights organizations and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) often only learn of arrests by Chinese border patrols, or of deportations of Tibetan refugees by Nepalese officials, when refugees make a successful re-attempt at escape.

The May 2003 deportation of 18 Tibetans from Katmandu to Chinese authorities in Tibet drew international headlines and condemnation of the Nepalese government by the UNHCR and numerous Western governments. Due to the increasing pressure, Nepal agreed in August not to repatriate Tibetans in the future.

Refugees who are caught coming back from India or Nepal are reportedly treated much more harshly and receive longer sentences than those who are caught trying to leave Tibet, according to former inmates. Tibetans who have served sentences in the New Reception Center or at Nyari prison in Shigatse report that most individuals caught at the border serve a prison sentence of three to five months, receive beatings and torture regularly (most commonly being hit with an electric baton), and must perform hard labor, usually road building in and around Shigatse.