Remembering Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
12th July 2016

One year after death of highly respected political prisoner

On 12 July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, one of Tibet's most high profile political prisoners, died thirteen years into a 20-year sentence. The true cause of his death is still unknown. After he died, his body was cremated against his family's wishes, his family and community were persecuted and in a final insult, the police snatched his ashes from his family. The treatment of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in life and death says much about China's ruthlessness and contempt in regard to Tibet.

Standing up for Tibet

"Since I am a Tibetan, I have always been sincere and devoted to the interests and well-being of Tibetan people. That is the real reason why the Chinese do not like me and framed me. That is why they are going to take my precious life even though I am innocent."

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche (Rinpoche is a religious title) was a highly respected community leader when he was arrested in April 2002 for alleged involvement in a bomb explosion. Following a trial in which no proper evidence was ever produced, he and his colleague Lobsang Dhondup were sentenced to death in December 2002.

Despite an appeal, Lobsang Dhondup was executed on 26 January 2003. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's death sentence was suspended and changed to life imprisonment in January 2005 and later reduced to 20 years. After his family failed to secure a review of the case, a series of protests took place in his home town of Lithang in December 2009. Shops closed in support as 40,000 Tibetans signed a petition to free Tenzin - others used red thumb prints. Each year, Tibetans in his home area marked his incarceration with prayers and calls for his release.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche continued to protest his innocence until his death. His case was regularly raised by foreign governments and serious concerns about his health led to repeated calls by campaigners and governments for his release. Despite him being entitled to medical parole, China refused to release him.

Mysterious death

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's family were permitted to visit him only once during his thirteen years in prison. He was held in a prison in Chengdu, just outside Tibet, and on 2 July 2015, they were suddenly invited to visit him. Once they reached Chengdu, however, they were repeatedly denied access to the prison. On 12 July, they were informed he had died - according to the authorities after unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate him after a heart attack. Some monks accompanying the family were allowed to see his body and reported that his mouth and fingernails were black. However, the authorities refused to issue a proper death certificate or release his body.

Men hospitalised in protests over death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche July 2015
Peaceful protesters receiving hospital treatment

Arrests and beatings

In the days following his death, authorities in his home area  of Nagchu County moved quickly to prevent anger and grief over his death turning into political action. His family were first warned to return home "without causing any trouble" and were later arrested and briefly held in Chengdu. In Nagchu County, peaceful protests demanding the return of his body were broken up with beatings, tear gas and firing into the air.

A witness later described the huge security presence in the area as being like "a battlefield".

On 16 July, despite calls by his family and governments, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's body was cremated against his family's wishes. This meant no autopsy was possible and the real cause of his death could not be confirmed.

"Thrown in the river"

Following their release from detention, his family was allowed to return home with his ashes, accompanied by security personnel. Before they arrived, however, the accompanying police officers confiscated his ashes, reportedly at gunpoint. The family said that they were told that the ashes would be thrown into the river. No information has since emerged from Tibet about what did happen to them but his family and fellow monks were denied the opportunity to perform proper funeral services for the Rinpoche.

Remembered by Tibetans

Despite Tibetan protests and calls by international governments, China has refused to provide any more information about the circumstances of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's death  or to hold anyone accountable for the denial of medical parole for him or the treatment of his family and remains after his death.

It is likely there will be a strong security presence in his home town and around his former monastery at this time. No news has yet emerged from Tibet about developments.


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Many religious figures are jailed in Tibet. Please take action for Sonam Lhatso, a nun jailed for eight years.