Manfred Novak

Manfred Novak, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. (AP)

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Manfred Nowak, stated that ‘torture remains widespread’ in Tibet and China after he spoke directly to Tibetan political prisoners during visits to the three main prisons in the Tibet Autonomous Region in November last year.

Dr Nowak was the first official international observer to visit a new prison, Chushur (Chinese: Qushui) near Lhasa, where some Tibetan political prisoners have been transferred, and he noted that in this prison as well as the others he visited “a palpable level of fear and self-censorship”. In his report, detailing the findings of his trip to the People’s Republic of China between November 20 and December 2 2005, Dr Novak details a meeting with a Tibetan political prisoner whose sentence was extended for an additional two years after he shouted “Long live the Dalai Lama!” in prison.

Dr Nowak’s report documents serious abuses against Tibetan political prisoners and expresses concern about the denial of Tibetan monks’ and lay prisoners’ rights to practice their religion in detention. Dr Nowak recommends the abolition of “political crimes that leave large discretion to law enforcement and prosecution authorities such as ‘endangering national security’,…’undermining the unity of the country’…etc.” He said that the practice of torture and conditions in prison constituted a “systematic form of inhuman and degrading treatment…incompatible with a modern society based on a culture of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

Tsering Jampa, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet Europe, said: “This thorough report, based on unprecedented first-hand interviews by an experienced UN human rights expert with some of Tibet’s most well-known political prisoners, presents a chilling picture of levels of fear, torture and intimidation inside detention facilities in Tibet. We support Dr Nowak’s recommendations to the Beijing authorities and his hope that the Chinese government will take them into account in the context of China’s stated reform efforts aimed at the eradication of torture and ill-treatment.”

Dr Nowak visited a total of ten detention facilities in the PRC during his visit, including three in Lhasa, the Tibet Autonomous Region – Chushur (Qushui), Drapchi (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison) and Lhasa Prison Number One (Lhasa Prison, formerly Utritru). The Rapporteur stated the following about his Tibet prison visits:

  • Chushur Prison was opened in April 2005 and has a male prison population of more than 300. Dr Nowak was told by the authorities that Chushur Prison is for prisoners who have committed ‘very serious crimes’, meaning sentences of more than 15 years. The twenty-nine-year old monk Lobsang Tsultrim, who is serving 14 years, was one of three Tibetan political prisoners he met at Chushur. Dr Nowak called for the release of all three prisoners as they were convicted “of a political crime, possibly based on information extracted by torture”.
  • At Chushur, Tibetan political prisoner Jigme Gyatso told Dr Nowak that his sentence had been extended by two years to 17 years following an incident in March 2004 in which he yelled out: “Long live the Dalai Lama”. As a result he was kicked and beaten, including with electric batons. Jigme Gyatso, who is in his early forties, was imprisoned in March 1996 and charged with establishing an ‘illegal’ Tibetan organisation.
  • The Tibetan political prisoner Bangri Chogtrul Rinpoche (Jigme Tenzin Nyima), the former head teacher and founder of the Gyatso school and home in Lhasa who is also being held at Chushur, told Dr Nowak that during his initial interrogation he was held handcuffed with one hand behind his shoulder and the other around his waist, and empty bottles were put in the spaces between his arms. For most of the first three months of interrogation, he was wearing handcuffs and shackles, even when eating and sleeping. (ICT report: Fears for school founder in prison)
  • The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that in some cases prisoners at Chushur are only allowed outside of their cells for 20 minutes per day, suffer from extreme temperatures in their cells during the summer and winter months, and a general feeling of weakness due to lack of exercise.
  • Detainees interviewed by the Rapporteur at Drapchi requested confidentiality, and the first set of prisoners that the Rapporteur approached for an interview at Lhasa Prison Number One all declined the opportunity to speak to him. Also at Drapchi, the Special Rapporteur was told that there are ‘ten isolation cells’, all with a window in the roof with direct sunlight. Former Drapchi prisoner Ngawang Sangdrol commented that there are many more than ten solitary cells in the prison, and that many do not have any windows or light at all, and are known as the ‘small, dark’ cells.

The report fails to mention a crackdown against monks at the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa during Dr Nowak’s visit following a rare incident of peaceful protest against the ‘patriotic education’ campaign at the monastery. At least one monk is reported to have died, reportedly due to suicide, after experiencing pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama. Although Dr Nowak had asked the Chinese authorities for information on the incident, he does not detail the Chinese response in the mission report.

Dr Nowak notes that security and intelligence officials attempted to obstruct or restrict his attempts at fact-finding, and the Mission Report states: “As the Special Rapporteur was unable to obtain a letter of authorization from the relevant authorities to visit detention centers alone (in contrast to his previous country visits), officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accompanied him to detention centers to ensure unrestricted access. As the authorities were generally informed approximately an hour in advance, the visits could not be considered to have been strictly ‘unannounced’.”

Dr Nowak’s visit to China and Tibet was the first of its kind by a UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and followed 10 years of negotiations over the mandate of the visit. The People’s Republic of China ratified the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) in October 1988.