Since 2008, the Chinese authorities have adopted a harsher approach to suppressing dissent and there has been a significant spike in the number of Tibetan political prisoners in Tibetan areas of the PRC. There is also evidence that since 2008 torture has become more widespread and directed at a broader sector of society. Although the PRC officially prohibits torture, it has become endemic in Tibet, a result both of a political emphasis on ensuring ‘stability’ and a culture of impunity among officials, paramilitary troops and security personnel.
The level of violence directed at Tibetan political prisoners in all detention facilities and prisons in Tibet is frequently extreme and has resulted in Tibetans being left with severe scars, including paralysis, the loss of limbs, organ damage, and serious psychological trauma.
Many of the worst accounts of abuse and torture, including sexual violation, have emerged from Gutsa, a colloquial Tibetan name for the Lhasa Public Security Bureau detention center based on its location. Because it functions as the preliminary center for detention and interrogation, treatment is particularly brutal; one former prisoner said that this is because the authorities are often seeking admissions of ‘guilt’ or confessions, or extracting names of others involved in, for instance, a peaceful protest. Former prisoners have detailed torture sessions lasting for hours, detailing beatings with iron rods and tubes full of sand, among other forms of torture. Tibetans from across Lhasa’s seven counties who are detained following peaceful demonstrations, or for other reasons, are held here before being transferred to other prisons.
Another former political prisoner, now in exile, told the International Campaign for Tibet: “Gutsa is known to be worse than Drapchi [Prison] for cruel treatment of prisoners and torture.”
The number of Tibetans who passed through Gutsa and endured interrogation and torture spiked dramatically after protests broke out in Lhasa on March 10, 2008. Given the unprecedented efforts made by the Chinese authorities to cover up the extent of the disappearances, detentions, torture and killings from March, 2008, onwards, it is not possible to give a comprehensive account of how many Tibetans have been detained at Gutsa since then. Restrictions on Tibetans who are released after serving terms in prison have intensified dramatically since 2008, and it is dangerous for them to speak even to their families about what they have endured while in detention.
An account by the Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser of the detentions after 2008 gives an idea of the scale of torture and imprisonment, and suggests the numbers of Tibetans who were held at Gutsa during this time. In a contemporaneous blog published on April 12, one month after the protests broke out, she wrote: “Over 800 people were detained inside a warehouse at the Lhasa Railway Station. Some were guarded by soldiers and some by the public security. Those who were kept under detention by the army suffered brutal physical torture, beating and are hungry. Those detained by the police fared better as they were served some food. Later, some of them were directly transferred to the Lhasa’s Gutsa detention center while some were transferred to prisons in Toelung Dechen County or Medrogongkar County before moving to the Gutsa detention center. As for the released, non Lhasa residents, were escorted back to the regions they came from. Then the detainees from Lhasa were released. Over 3,000 people have been arrested so far.”
Tibetans who served long sentences after the March 2008 protests, either because of actual or alleged involvement, would have been most likely to be held in Gutsa Detention Center prior to being transferred to prisons. This includes a Tibetan called Dashar, from Sershul in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi), the Tibetan area of Kham, who was imprisoned in Lhasa, charged with involvement in protests on March 10, 2008. He returned home in May, 2018.
It is likely that the number of Tibetans detained in Gutsa also increased in 2012 in two occurrences of mass detention. The first involved a major and systematic operation by the Chinese authorities targeting and detaining Tibetans who returned from a major religious teaching, the Kalachakra, by the Dalai Lama in India in January, 2012. Around 7,000-8,000 Tibetan pilgrims attended the Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya and were monitored even while in India; upon return hundreds of them were detained and held for ‘re-education’. Gutsa was likely to have been used for this purpose.
One of the Tibetans held, a businessman, was severely tortured and beaten unconscious during his first 15 days in detention. His home was raided and DVDs of the Kalachakra teaching and photographs of the Dalai Lama were confiscated. An announcement posted outside Gutsa, according to a Tibetan source, stated that Jigme Topgyal, 55, had been sentenced to a two-year term of hard labor.
In the second occurrence of mass detention that year, hundreds of Tibetans were detained following the self-immolation of two Tibetans outside the Jokhang Temple on May 27, 2012. An unknown number of Tibetans were held in detention centers in and around Lhasa, with many Tibetans from areas outside the TAR being expelled from the city.
Prominent former political prisoner Jigme Gyatso, in his fifties, endured brutal torture during a period of detention in Gutsa of one year and one month, prior to serving a 17-year sentence in Drapchi and Chushur. During a brief meeting with the then U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Manfred Nowak, during his visit to Chushur Prison in 2005, Jigme Gyatso described his time in Gutsa as “the worst”. A friend of Jigme Gyatso’s who is now in exile told the International Campaign for Tibet: “Jigme Gyatso was severely tortured at Gutsa. He was held in a dark room, separate to about 17 other Tibetans who were detained at the same time. He was kept in heavy shackles.” The same Tibetan source said that during his detention at Gutsa, Jigme Gyatso managed to smuggle out a letter to a comrade saying that he was likely to receive a long prison sentence, but that he had no regrets. He referred to the 10th Panchen Lama’s long prison sentence and others who had served terms in jail for freedom, including the South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela. When Gutsa officials discovered that he had sent this letter, Jigme Gyatso was beaten. Jigme Gyatso was released in 2013, suffering from multiple medical problems including weak eyesight, heart complications, kidney disorder and difficulty walking.
In March 2012, 11 Tibetans were held in Lhasa – most likely in Gutsa – for having images of the Dalai Lama or songs about him on their mobile phones, according to Radio Free Asia (April 22, 2012). The report cited an official document dated April 6 (2012) and issued by the Lhasa PSB Brigade To Crack Down on Organized Crime.
The testimony of one former prisoner, Tsering Samdup, who was held in Gutsa prior to a six-year prison sentence for unfurling a Tibetan flag in a demonstration in Lhasa in 1994, is typical of documented accounts of those held in Gutsa. He said: “In the first two months in Gutsa we were beaten and tortured terribly. We were put in separate cells from each other. I was in a small room with 11 other prisoners. There wasn’t enough space to stretch out our legs or lie down, so we had to stay crouched all day. Breakfast was a small bread roll and a black tea. There was no lunch. Dinner was another piece of bread with a spoonful of vegetables. Every day at 8am a guard would begin calling out names for interrogation. We were taken to different rooms to be individually interrogated and tortured.”