A Tibetan man in his twenties was beaten to death by police after he was stopped for driving a motorbike in the town of Labrang (Chinese: Xiahe) in Gansu, eastern Tibet, according to at least two Tibetans in exile and in contact with people in the area. The family has been compensated with a large fee from the local authorities after strong representations were made by senior monks from Labrang Tashikyil monastery and people from the Tibetan’s village who traveled to Labrang following news of his death on the night of December 9.

According to one source, the treatment of the Tibetan, who has been named as Chonjor, was particularly severe because police suspected him of being someone else, although further details are not known. But the incident is an indication of the serious tensions in the area and dangers for Tibetans at a time of continued crackdown following protests in 2008.

Chonjor had traveled to Labrang from his home in the township of Achok, Sangchu (Chinese: Xiahe) county, Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province (the Tibetan area of Amdo), in order to meet a member of his family who is a monk at the monastery there. On Friday (December 9), he was apprehended by traffic police while he was on his motorbike, and they asked to check his license. Although the circumstances are not clear, it appears that the traffic police handed him over to the People’s Armed Police who took him into custody.

When he did not arrive at the monastery that night, family members and others who knew him sought to find him the next morning and went to the police station, where they were apparently told that he was dead. According to exiled Tibetan sources, he had faced particularly severe torture while in custody. Tibetans from his community in Achok traveled to Labrang, and religious officials from the monastery also made representations to complain about the death. A substantial sum of money, one million yuan ($156,867), was awarded to the family, according to the two exile sources.

A Tibetan in exile who knows a family friend told ICT: “I have never heard of such a large amount of money being handed over as compensation in Tibet, and perhaps this is some sort of admission by the authorities that this should not have happened. But money does not bring the person back. Everyone who knew Chonjor is so sad, and people expressed their anger, they are very strong from this part of Tibet. He was young, very handsome, and a really good person.” Chonjor’s death takes place in the context of continued political crackdown and tension in the Labrang area. Labrang Tashikhil, where one of his close relatives is a monk, is one of the largest monasteries in Tibet, and is adjacent to Labrang town (base of the Sangchu county authorities). As the principal Tibetan cultural center in the region, it has also been a focus of symbolic nationalist protest and cultural activity in recent years, mostly led by local monks and nuns.

On March 14, 2008, the same day that protests in Lhasa turned violent, Labrang Tashikhyil monks led a crowd that grew into thousands of local people on a peaceful demonstration in Sangchu county during the afternoon and evening. It was the first major signal that the protests were to spread right across Tibet, apparently taking the Chinese authorities by surprise. The authorities began their current crackdown by dispersing the demonstrators with tear gas, and during the evening of March 14, armed police raided Labrang Tashikhyil monastery, smashing altars, burning images of the Dalai Lama and threatening the monks. (For a full account, see ICT report Tibet at a Turning Point).

Two Labrang Tashikhyil monks died, one following severe torture, from a group of 15 monks who protested in front of foreign journalists at Labrang Tashikhyil monastery on April 9, 2008. (ICT report, Torture blamed for death of Tibetan monk, second death following protest during foreign reporters’ visit to Labrang monastery – 4 April 2011).

Fears for two Labrang monks, one seriously ill in prison

Labrang monk Thapkay Gyatso, who is serving 15 years in prison, is in a serious condition following “years of torture” with one report stating he is “half-paralysed” and suffering from poor eyesight, according to new information received by ICT and the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD).

Thapkay Gyatso, who was a friend of the two Labrang monks who died following the protest in front of foreign press in April, 2008, was arrested in a raid on the monastery on the night of March 18 2008. He was taken away and disappeared for over a year. On May 19, 2009, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for offences of “committing separatist activities” apparently linked to his participation in peaceful protests. (TCHRD report, 8 December 2011).

Thapkay Gyamtso is in his mid-thirties and comes from Sangkok village, near Sangchu (Xiahe). He attended local primary school and the county middle school before becoming ordained as a monk and joining the Kalachakra college at Labrang monastery. He published several written compositions in local magazines and newspapers under the pen name Ama Lha. There are also fears for the safety of a Labrang Tashikhyil monk known as Labrang Jigme who became the first Tibetan to describe his own torture and imprisonment on video, which was later posted on Youtube, in which he revealed his own identity. Labrang Jigme was detained again (for the fourth time) on August 20, in a move believed to be linked to the video testimony, and there are serious fears for his welfare. He is believed to be in police custody in Tsoe (Chinese: Hezuo) city, Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (ICT report, Tibetan scholar monk who gave torture testimony detained for fourth time – 2 September 2011).