A major new prison housing hundreds of inmates, including monks and other political prisoners, has become operational near Lhasa, Tibet. ICT has received confirmation that a number of political prisoners have been transferred from Drapchi (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison) to the new facility, which is in Chushur (Chinese: Qushui) county, near Nyethang (Chinese: Nidang), off the road leading south from Lhasa towards Shigatse. The prison, described by Beijing as Qushui prison, is in a rural area south-west of Lhasa and although there has been a detention facility there since the 1960s, it was not known to foreign observers until now. A political prisoner who is familiar with the new prison told ICT: “On the outside the prison looks very modern and many of the facilities are new. But inside it is very tough and hard for prisoners, even compared to Drapchi prison.”
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Manfred Nowak, visited the new prison during his two-week visit to the PRC which concluded on 5 December 2005, and said that he spoke to inmates whom he had been told were imprisoned for political offences and transferred from Drapchi. A Tibetan source who has visited the prison reported that many prisoners are held there in solitary confinement, specifically in ‘punishment’ (solitary) cells (sometimes known as ‘dark cells’ due to the lack of natural light and poor conditions). Their transfer to the new prison facility may reflect the authorities’ continuing concern to keep political prisoners away from other prisoners in established detention facilities in Lhasa, as well as issues of space at Drapchi (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison).
The same former political prisoner, who is now in exile, said: “In Drapchi you can see the sky and sometimes the mountains from the cells. But in the new prison there are smaller windows which are higher up, and the cells are more oppressive. It is in a more remote area, which I think is to keep the political prisoners far from Lhasa and other prisoners, so that no one can hear their voices.” The former prisoner said that levels of surveillance in the new prison are even higher than at Drapchi.
Reports of the prison have been emerging from Tibetans who have escaped into exile since 2004. Chushur Prison is referred to by local people as ‘a prison near Drolma Lhakhang’, a temple on the main road leading south from Lhasa towards Shigatse, and its technical name is believed to be in Chinese ‘Ni dang zhuang wa chang’, or Nyethang (Chinese: Nidang) Brick and Tile Factory. The site is thought to have been used from the 1960s for housing prisoners involved in making bricks and tiles.
At least 25 political prisoners, including monks and nuns serving sentences for peaceful protests, were reportedly transferred to Chushur prison from Drapchi in summer 2005. Lobsang Tenzin, a Tibetan former student in his late thirties whose death sentence on a charge of murder was commuted to life and then to a fixed term of 20 years, is one of the most well-known prisoners who has been transferred to the facility. Lobsang Tenzin, who was previously imprisoned in TAR Prison No 2, Powo Tramo prison in Kongpo (Chinese: Nyingtri), is apparently carrying out farm work at the new prison facility after his transfer there in summer. Lobsang Tenzin, whose sentence is due to end on 26 April 2013, joined a political protest in Lhasa on 5 March 1988 and was one of five Tibetans charged in the death of a police officer during the incident. In March 1991, Lobsang Tenzin and another prisoner, Tenpa Wangdrag, had attempted to hand a letter on human rights to U.S. Ambassador James Lilley when he visited Drapchi Prison (TAR Prison). Both were beaten and put into isolation cells, then transferred to Powo Tramo prison after other prisoners protested against their maltreatment.
The office of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture confirmed that the prison facility is new and stated that “conditions are much better than Drapchi.” The Rapporteur’s office did not state how or why conditions were better. Official visits to all prisons in the TAR are strictly controlled by the authorities, and visitors see units that are carefully prepared for the visit. A strong statement issued by the Special Rapporteur in Beijing following his visit noted: “In his interviews with detainees, the Special Rapporteur observed a palpable level of fear and self-censorship, which he had not experienced in the course of his previous missions”.
Chushur Prison is also described by some sources as being ‘near Trisam’. Trisam is an ‘re-education through labor’ (laojiao) facility with political prisoners serving sentences up to four years, also to the south-west or west of Lhasa. A Xinhua report on 14 April 2000 stated that Drapchi, Utritru and Powo Tramo prisons were charged with “managing, educating and reforming 2,200 prisoners.” Utritru, or Lhasa Prison, is not known to have been a prominent place for detaining political prisoners in recent years. But it was expanded in the late 1990s and elevated from prefectural to provincial status, and some Drapchi prisoners were reportedly held in isolation cells there after peaceful protests by prisoners in May 1998 led to severe repercussions and the deaths of at least eight political prisoners. Drapchi prison has also undergone expansion in the past decade.
It took several decades for the Chinese to admit that they had more than one prison in TAR – as of 2004, the Chinese authorities had admitted only to the existence of three prisons (meaning a facility for holding tried prisoners) in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Until now, the three formally designated provincially ranked prisons in the TAR have been Drapchi, Powo Tramo (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison Number Two) and Lhasa Prison (Utritru), several kilometres north-east of the Jokhang temple in central Lhasa.