Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
Tibetan whose prison sentence prompted an outcry in the West
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in a Chinese prison last Monday aged 65, was a Tibetan priest and follower of the Dalai Lama. He was convicted on what his supporters claimed were trumped-up charges relating to a bombing in the centre of Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province, that injured three people in April 2002.
Arrested shortly after the blast, he and his 28-year-old assistant, Lobsang Dondrub, were sentenced to death on charges of terror and incitement to separatism. His death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment (and in 2005 to 20 years' imprisonment), but Lobsang Dondrub was executed almost immediately - the first execution of a Tibetan for political crimes for 20 years - prompting an outcry from human rights activists who criticised the original trial.
In a report published in 2004, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that the legal proceedings against Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had been "procedurally flawed" and that he had been charged only in order to "curb his efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism...and his work to develop Tibetan social and cultural institutions."
His persecution, the report argued, highlighted the continuing strictures placed on Tibetans in China.
"In spite of China's rhetoric about legal reform, Tenzin Delek's case shows that when it comes to Tibet, the Chinese government still does not tolerate uncontrolled political or religious activity," an official in the Asia Division of HRW was quoted as saying.
Tenzin Delek was born in 1950 in Litang, or Lithang, County. The same year saw the Battle of Chamdo (known officially in China as the Liberation of Tibet) when Lithang changed from being part of Kham, Tibet, to a Tibetan area of Sichuan, China.
During the 1980s Tenzin Delek travelled to Dharmsala, India, where the Dalai Lama has lived since fleeing Tibet in 1959, to study under him. During that time the Dalai Lama recognised him as a tulku, or reincarnated lama.
In 1987, he returned to China, where he worked to establish monasteries, health clinics, schools and orphanages for impoverished nomadic Tibetan communities, becoming seen as a leader of Tibetans living in China.
In its 2004 report, HRW described how Chinese government officials had been trying to silence Tenzin Delek for more than a decade before his arrest in 2002, after his relationship with the Chinese state deteriorated following his campaign to resist deforestation, logging and mining in Tibetan areas. The authorities had begun to perceive Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as a threat as his "local status rose and he successfully challenged official policies on a number of issues," the report said.
In a tape recording smuggled out of prison, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche denied the bombing charges against him. "I have always taught people that one should not harm any life, not even that of an ant," he said. "How could I then possibly be responsible for such an action?"
Not only did he become a cause celebre in the West, but Tibetans in his home area also staged a number of protests demanding his release. In 2009 some 40,000 Tibetans in his home area signed a petition asking for a retrial and staged demonstrations, including a hunger strike, for several days, in a wave of unrest which then spread to other areas and prompted a huge influx of Chinese security forces. About 70 Tibetans were arrested and detained, but later released.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died in a prison in Dazhu county in Sichuan province, which borders the Tibetan region. The Chinese authorities confirmed the death but have refused to give any further details.