By Steven D. Marshall, Tibet Information Network, September 2000

In June 1998 five nuns died in Tibet’s Number One prison, Drapchi, after five weeks of severe maltreatment. The nuns are reported to have committed suicide together by hanging or choking themselves to death in a storeroom within their cell block. All the nuns were close comrades in their twenties who had been imprisoned for peaceful protests. None of them had long periods left to serve; had they survived, the last to complete her sentence would have been released in February this year.

The deaths of the five nuns can be seen as a culmination of the harsh treatment administered over the past decade to the group of female political prisoners held in Drapchi’s “rukhag (unit) 3”. “Rukhag 3: The Nuns of Drapchi Prison” provides the most comprehensive documentation so far of a pattern of resistance and repression over an unbroken period of eight years beginning in 1992 and continuing into 1999 inside the two sections of Unit 3, where all inmates are female and most are political prisoners. First-hand accounts gathered by TIN give new information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the five nuns following the May 1998 prison protests and provide new and unprecedented detail on previous acts of dissent within the prison and their consequences.

This information has emerged despite the extreme measures taken by the Chinese authorities to prevent news about the situation inside Drapchi reaching the outside world. The measures taken within Drapchi to isolate prisoners following the May 1998 prison protests were not only punitive; they were also intended to obstruct the flow of information. Prisoners were sequestered within their cells for more than a year and were not allowed visitors for many months following the protests, while surveillance measures within cells ensured that communication between cell-mates was minimal. It is an indication of the official determination to block all avenues of communication that details of the May 1998 prison protests and their consequences are still emerging from Tibet more than two years after they occurred. The consequences of the acts of individual and collective resistance documented in this report demonstrate an official propensity to apply extraordinarily harsh levels of abuse on a recurrent basis. This pattern has affected nearly every political prisoner held in Unit 3. The application of extreme abuse and sentence extensions in the post-1987 period in Drapchi emerge as methods both to punish an individual offender, and to create a deterrent for a wider constituency, both inside and outside the prison.