Sonam Dorjee, 38, who is now in exile, was one of a group of five Tibetan farmers who were imprisoned and tortured in 1992 after one of the most well-known incidents of protest against Chinese policies in the period following the imposition of martial law in the Tibet Autonomous Region (March 1989 – May 1990). At the time, most political protests had occurred in Lhasa rather than in surrounding rural areas.
One of the group, Sonam Rinchen, then in his twenties, died in 1999 after part of his body was paralysed as a result of torture. Two members of the group, Thubten Yeshe and Lhundrub, are still in prison in Tibet serving 15 years. Thubten Yeshe was described by the authorities at the trial as being ‘fundamentally bad’ because he had painted a Tibetan national ‘snow lion’ flag on his door. The fifth member of the group, Kunchog Lodoe, was released on medical parole in 1996 and is still in poor health.
Sonam Dorjee was transferred from the Tibet Autonomous Region Prison (Drapchi) to Chushur (Qushui), off the road leading south from Lhasa towards Shigatse, in February 2005. He described the prison as being far worse than the notorious Tibet Autonomous Region Prison, Drapchi, saying that surveillance is more stringent and conditions more oppressive. Visitors to Chushur, which is near Nyethang (Chinese: Nidang) are said to be given a list of questions they are not allowed to ask prisoners. New prisoners are generally tortured during interrogation and prisoners who are held in solitary confinement are shackled with heavy chains, according to various reports.
Sonam Dorjee, Lhundrub, Kunchok Lodoe, and Sonam Rinchen decided to make their protest in June 1992 because of the impact of Chinese policies and the influx of Chinese people into their local area, and other rural areas of Tibet. Displaying a home-made version of the Tibetan national ‘snow lion’ flag, which is banned in Tibet and a banner with the wording ‘Independence for Tibet’, they interrupted a township meeting on ‘socialist ideology’ where officials were discussing family planning policies, and the imposition of fines on families who refused to conform to the authorities’ birth plans. The officials on the podium abruptly disappeared when the Tibetan group raised the Tibetan flag and shouted “May His Holiness live for thousands of years”, “Chinese must leave Tibet”, and “independence for Tibet”.
The group was able to protest for around 15 minutes before they were arrested by local armed police. The police were followed by at least two truckloads of soldiers. Sonam Dorjee said that when they were en route to the police station and detention center, “The roadside was filled with people burning incense in a gesture of solidarity. When an officer questioned their actions, they said they were practicing their religious freedom. People were also carrying pictures of His Holiness and the Panchen Lama and were trying to show them to us – I think they were meant for us to meditate upon and visualize their faces. Some even carried thangkas [Tibetan religious paintings].”
Sonam Dorjee and his three colleagues were not beaten upon arrival at the local police station, but later upon arrival at the township and later the county detention center in Meldrogonkar [Chinese: Mozhugongka] in Lhasa Municipality. Sonam Dorjee told ICT: “The tools used to beat us with were various electric batons, thick sticks, a thick rubber rod filled with sand like substances, and iron rods. We were separated into different cells. The first few batons on the head would hurt but after that your head becomes numb. It doesn’t hurt when they hit on your back, but after this happened several times, blood would spurt out of my mouth and nose, which scared me. When the police got tired of beating us, our pictures were taken with black plaques hanging from our heads.” The four Tibetans were taken to Gutsa detention center in Lhasa, with all traffic stopped en route to allow the convoy of vehicles to pass. Prior to arrival in Lhasa, Sonam Dorjee and the others were beaten until they were unconscious.
At Gutsa, all four Tibetans were thrown into different prison cells and interrogated. Sonam Dorjee said: “The questions were same as before, asking us to reveal the ring-leaders and organizers of our protest and whether we had support from outside [a reference to the exile Tibetan community in India]. Since we did not have any names to give them, they asked us where we learned about Tibet’s independence. We told them that we learned about Tibet’s independence from many protests in Lhasa before, and by asking onlookers about this [the pro-independence protests in Lhasa from 1987-9, which led to the imposition of martial law in March 1989 under the leadership of the then TAR Party Secretary Hu Jintao, now President and Party Secretary of China]. They continued to torture us as we could not pinpoint the people who had given us the understanding about Tibet’s plight, and inspired us to protest. Prison guards asked me to stand on the chair placed in the middle of the room, and tied my thumbs to the thin nylon thread that was hanging from the ceiling. Once the chair on which I was standing on was kicked away, I was hanging from the ceiling and was beaten again. The pain experienced from the beating was relatively minor compared to the burning sensation I experienced from the pull on my thumbs. After hanging for three minutes from the thin thread, my entire body from the tips of my toes to the ears started burning and hurting and I began to hear a ringing noise. I fell unconscious. The interrogation started again once I regained consciousness, with the same questions, and at the same time I could hear haunting screams from the other cells.”
Sonam Rinchen, the young farmer who died in 1999, was given electric shocks, with an electric wire attached to the nails of each finger. Sonam Dorjee said: “There is a sensation that every strand of skin is being torn apart from the flesh. For a few days after experiencing that ordeal, the body is rendered almost lifeless.”
Sonam Dorjee said that most of the prison guards who carried out the torture were Tibetans: “Since we are struggling against the Chinese, it does not hurt my heart when they torture us. On the other hand, when Tibetans torture us, it hurts from within. The Chinese would mostly use electric batons while Tibetans would use sticks [to beat us]. Tibetans would scold us saying that we should be more grateful to the Chinese as general conditions have improved much since the Chinese overthrew the old Tibetan government. There are a few Tibetans who would only scold and not beat us. The head of the department was Chinese and there were always one or two Chinese together with the Tibetan [guards], so the Tibetan guards had to beat us or risk demotion or worse, [political] condemnation.
“I was beaten severely at one interrogation session by a young, tiny woman who was half-Tibetan and half-Chinese. She was very furious and vicious. She beat me so badly that at the end, I was bleeding from my ears, nose and mouth, which I spat back at her. Her anger and ferocity toward a fellow Tibetan fuelled my anger and in the moment I told her that I will be seeing you when Tibet regains its independence and that I will never forget your face. I was very sad, and I cried so hard after returning to my cell.”
Thubten Yeshe, then 42, was arrested soon after the detention of the other four Tibetans, after one gave his name under torture. Thubten Yeshe, a relative of Sonam Rinchen, had not taken part in the demonstration when the flag had been displayed, but he was accused of writing the lettering of ‘Free Tibet’ on one of the banners. He was sentenced to 15 years and is still in prison. Sonam Rinchen, then 23, and Lhundrub, also 23 at that time, were also sentenced to 15 years, and Kunchok Lodoe, then 23, and Sonam Dorjee to 13 years.
All five Tibetans were charged with “spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda”, according to the judgment of the Intermediate People’s Court of Lhasa City, dated October 20, 1992, a copy of which has been obtained by ICT. The court judgment states: “The above defendants took advantage of socialist ideological education sessions to make unbridled counter-revolutionary speeches and launch wanton attacks on the socialist system in order to divide the Motherland. In conclusion, they have committed serious crimes that have a deep effect upon society. According to the law, they must be punished severely.” This punishment was in order “to defend the unity of the motherland, to uphold the socialist system, to strengthen the proletarian dictatorship, to strike relentlessly at the counter-revolutionaries and criminal activities according to the stipulations of the criminal law of the People’s Republic of China”.
The length of the sentences handed down toThubten Yeshe, Sonam Rinchen and the other protestors reflected the determination of the authorities to crack down on the political involvement of lay Tibetans in the countryside, where morethan 80″ of Tibetans live.
After sentencing, Sonam Dorjee and his four fellow protestors were taken to Drapchi Prison, where they gained a reputation for their intransigence and refusal to submit to attempts at ‘reform’. In the first few days of his imprisonment, Thubten Yeshe was sent to solitary confinement because he had been found reciting prayers. Sonam Dorjee says: “A guard asked him what he was doing, and he said replied, ‘I am reciting mani [prayers]’. The guard asked him why, to which he said, ‘Chinese law has always stated that there is religious freedom and I am in Tibet’s soil, so why wouldn’t I recite a mantra.’ So he was taken from there and guards started torturing him with electric batons. He was held for 28 days in solitary confinement, and refused to write a letter declaring wrong-doing as he did not consider reciting a mantra was wrong.” All the five Tibetans were then assigned to work in Drapchi’s vegetable plots. Sonam Dorjee said: “We had to dig, load and distribute human waste that is used as fertilizers. I was a farmer before so it wasn’t demeaning to me, but there were so many highly learned and reincarnate monks who had to work with us, and it was hard for them.”
Sonam Dorjee’s health worsened in prison. He said: “Due to malnutrition and torture, my body became weaker and weaker day by day. For breakfast, they gave a water-like porridge and for lunch, rice and boiled vegetables with too much spice which weakens our digestive system. For dinner, they give one bowl of thukpa [Tibetan noodle soup]. The meal is not enough to fill our stomach. On top of that we were questioned everyday and beaten up after each question. Due to this maltreatment, we had to spend each second of our life in fear and frustration which made me suffer from severe heart-related diseases. We were considered less valuable then animals. If a political prisoner is ill, there was no one to dispense medicine or do the necessary treatment.”
Sonam Rinchen’s health also dramatically deteriorated. The involvement of other members of Sonam Rinchen’s family in political protest may have been one of the factors that singled him out for such severe maltreatment in prison. Sonam Rinchen’s brother Tamdrin had served a five-year sentence in Drapchi prison after involvement in political activities in 1988. Sonam Rinchen, who had been due for release from Drapchi this year, was hospitalized and died on September 17, 1999.
Kunchok Lodoe also became seriously ill, and when the authorities believed him to be close to death, was released on medical parole in 1996. He has not been well enough to return to prison.
In 1998, Sonam Dorjee became seriously ill with a heart condition and was hospitalized in the same military infirmary in Lhasa where Sonam Rinchen died. Although his family members were allowed to visit, most of the time he was unconscious and unable to speak. Concerned that he would die in prison, the authorities sent Sonam Dorjee home, where he took Tibetan medicine for seven months and recovered. In November 2000, county police and Drapchi officials came to Sonam Dorjee’s family home and told him to report back to the prison, although they assured him he probably would not have to stay.
“When I arrived at the prison, an official asked me how I felt about the care officials and the state had shown to me when I almost died two years before,” said Sonam Dorjee. “I told him that the officials had not done me any favors when I was sent home because I was close to death and the prison did not want to deal with the consequences of a dead inmate. I told them that I had returned to complete my sentence but not to change my views. I refused to write a statement and thanked Buddha for his blessing. For this I was beaten severely and sent to solitary confinement. On the eighth day in the solitary cell I had to break the tiny window with the heel of my shoe because the air was so claustrophobic. The next day I was so weak that I fell and hit my head on the water tap. I woke up later in the prison infirmary, soaked in blood. They asked me to write a thank you note but I refused.”
In February 2005, Sonam Dorjee and other political prisoners were transported to the new Chushur prison in a rural area south-west of Lhasa. “Our cell was equipped with video cameras and a voice-recorder, and the toilet was inside the cell. It is the worst prison I have ever seen. “
Prisoners at Chushur are divided into different categories; political prisoners who are regarded as particularly intransigent and resistant to reform are not generally allowed to see visitors (or allowed to see them for very short periods) and are kept in solitary confinement, known as ‘dark cells’, which are small and oppressive, with little or no natural light. Often they are shackled in these cells. Members of the group considered to have ‘reformed’ are allowed to study and to have longer breaks outside the cells. Most prisoners are apparently not given medical care except for in emergencies. Reports from former prisoners indicate that they are sometimes required to denounce the Dalai Lama, and if they do not, they are beaten.
There are also increased restrictions for visitors at Chushur. Visitors are only allowed to see prisoners through a glass pane, from which they can glimpse only their face, and they speak on a telephone rather than in person. One former political prisoner told ICT: “It is terrible not to be able to hold the hand of your brother or sister, or to hug your wife.”
Sonam Dorjee was released in June, 2005, after serving a total of 11 years of imprisonment, and two in close confinement at home due to illness. His continued ill-health made it impossible for him to help his family with their work in the fields, and constant surveillance made his life difficult, so he escaped into exile.
In recent years, the Chinese authorities have stepped up their efforts to prevent information about political prisoners reaching the outside world, which means that it can sometimes take years to confirm details about prisoners serving long sentences for acts of peaceful protest.
Like Sonam Dorjee, other Tibetan political prisoners continue to face severe hardship even after they are released from detention. They continue to be perceived as ‘a threat to state security’, and many of them are in a poor state of physical health following torture while in prison. They frequently experience feelings of isolation, fear and anxiety, made worse by the awareness that they are under constant surveillance and that their family and friends are also under pressure from the authorities.
Ex-prisoner monks and nuns are unable to return to their religious institutions and lay ex-political prisoners usually cannot return to their old jobs. Most have greatdifficulty in finding suitable alternative employment, which leads to many former political prisoners seeing no alternative but to escape into exile.