• Hundreds of Tibetan monks, nuns, and laypeople gathered in a rare vigil outside a prison on Wednesday (January 15) to protest the detention of a respected and popular Tibetan lama, Khenpo (Abbot) Karma Tsewang, who was imprisoned in December and may face criminal charges.
  • The silent vigil this week, held outside the high walls topped with barbed wire of Nangchen (Chinese: Nangqian) prison, followed an earlier peaceful demonstration also involving hundreds of monks, who held home-made banners calling for his release. Sixteen of the monks were detained; their whereabouts and welfare is not known.
  • Karma Tsewang (known as Khenpo Kartse), who is known for his environmental activism, disaster relief work, and commitment to the preservation of Tibetan language, wrote a letter from prison on December 27 appealing to his supporters that no one should suffer for his sake.
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UPDATE: JANUARY 27, 2014 Khenpo Kartse, who has been in prison since December 6 (2013), is apparently seriously ill with a liver condition, according to new reports from Tibetans. He has not been allowed access to the doctor who has been treating him for some time with his medical condition. His lawyer and relatives have also been denied access to him and there are serious fears for his welfare.

Radio Free Asia described his condition as “critical” in their report, Detained Tibetan Monk in ‘Critical’ Condition.

Around 60 to 70 monks and several hundred laypeople gathered in front of the county jail in the Tibetan town of Nangchen (Chinese: Nangqian), Yushu, on Wednesday in a silent vigil in support of Khenpo Kartse, who was detained in Chengdu, Sichuan, on December 6 (2013). Although the rally took place in Nangchen, Khenpo Kartse is imprisoned in Chamdo (Chinese: Qamdo or Changdu), according to Tibetan sources.

Images sent from Tibet show the crowd gathering in front of the prison walls, topped by a watch-tower, while another picture shows a silent crowd gathered in a circle, sitting on the ground, outside the prison. According to information from Tibetan exile sources, the crowd dispersed after a senior official from the security bureau in Nangchen came out to speak to them, saying that monks who had been detained would be released, and that information about Khenpo Kartse’s case would be given to them.

Khenpo Kartse is a respected abbot (Khenpo) at the Gongya Monastery in Nangchen, Kyegudo (Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Qinghai Province. According to Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser, Khenpo Kartse’s lawyer has been told by Chamdo police that the case involves endangering state security. Tibetans in the area have expressed fears that his continued detention and conviction could spark unrest and a further crackdown. “If he should be convicted, it would be like the sky falling,” Woeser said (Associated Press, January 17, 2014).

Khenpo Kartse is well-known for his community initiatives to preserve Tibetan language, including teaching the language to young Tibetans. He was also involved in leading teams of monks to rescue victims and provide relief to survivors during recent disasters in Tibetan areas, including the earthquake in Kyegudo (Yushu) in 2010, and the landslide in Drukchu (Chinese: Zhouqu). After the earthquake in Yushu, Khenpo Kartse interviewed a number of eyewitnesses and made a film about it that was later banned from circulation by the authorities.

Distressed at his detention in early December, hundreds of monks joined by local people gathered to call for his release on December 12 (2013). Monks with white headbands held hand-made banners with wording in Tibetan and Chinese characters proclaiming messages including: ‘Please release Khenpo Kartse’ and ‘Understand the difficulties of students separated from their teacher’. In footage shown by Voice of America’s Tibetan service, a county level official is shown shouting at the monks. (http://www.voatibetan.com/media/video/china-detains-popular-tibetan-khenpo-and-16-supporters-seeking-his-releasa/1822825.html).

Silent protest outside Nangchen prison

Silent protest outside Nangchen prison for Khenpo Kartse on January 15, showing men, women and children gathered outside the prison.

Although the demonstrators stopped, on December 20 and 21, 16 monks were detained, and their current whereabouts and safety is not known.

According to news circulating on social media, several thousand Tibetans also signed a petition calling for Khenpo Kartse’s release.

In a handwritten letter dated December 27 and apparently written in prison, Khenpo Kartse called on his “sincere followers” not to worry about him and to forbear from any actions that might cause them harm. It was not possible to fully confirm the authenticity of the note, which was circulated on Tibetan social media.

In a translation from the Tibetan, the note stated: “On account of my current situation, I remain in prison in Chamdo, but I have not suffered any beatings or harm; I, therefore, hope that the monastic and the lay communities will not be too worried. In particular, I strongly appeal to my sincere followers that not one of you should suffer for my sake; it is in the long-term interest that the monk disciples should devote themselves to the monastery’s spiritual activities and the lay community should devote themselves to their regular activities.

“It seems there was some confrontation recently between the public security personnel and the monastic and lay communities; such incidents should not take place at all. Forbearance should be shown and good relations maintained with the concerned leaders and offices so that the current situation can be resolved quickly and all the spiritual activities can be resumed.” The Khenpo added an instruction for his supporters and followers to offer prayers, writing: “In the meanwhile, the monastic and lay communities should recite prayers to Tara and the refuge practice; the deity chapels and the monasteries should conduct whatever possible prayer ceremonies.”

The detention of Khenpo Kartse, who has been under the scrutiny of local officials for some time, is consistent with the authorities’ attempts in Tibet to silence and suppress individuals with a positive influence in their community, often monks, scholars, writers who seek to protect the values of Tibetan cultural and religious identity.

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The detention of Khenpo Kartse, like those of other Tibetans who are working peacefully to preserve their culture and identity, should be of great concern for the international community. First of all, because these detentions take place without following due process and without any evidence that can justify a grave decision such is the deprivation of personal freedom of any individual; secondly, because the continuing harassment by the Chinese authorities of respected leaders of the Tibetan communities further alienates Tibetans who live already in a very oppressive environment. This is a dangerous trend that needs to be addressed urgently and the international community should call for Khenpo Kartse’s immediate release from prison”.