Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

Highly regarded Tibetan community leader and human rights defender, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, died in Chinese custody having spent over 13 years in prison on politicized charges.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

On 12 July 2015 Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died in a Chinese prison. International Tibet Network issued a statement on 13 July.

“I am not guilty, please appeal for justice  for me… call all people together and do  everything possible to help me overturn the  verdict”.

 Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a highly  respected Tibetan religious leader, was held in prison for over 13 years, serving a  life sentence for a crime he did not commit.

Throughout his imprisonment Tenzin Delek  Rinpoche was in very ill-health, with a heart  condition and high blood pressure,.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was wrongly imprisoned. His “crime” had been to devote his life to helping his community, working tirelessly to preserve the Tibetan identity, culture and Tibet’s environment. He was persecuted for his support for the Dalai Lama, his promotion of Tibetan Buddhism and for his cultural and social development work in Tibet.

Background Profile: As a revered religious leader, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was a visionary and steadfast advocate of Tibetan identity and culture. Born in 1950 in Lithang, Kham, eastern Tibet, he joined Lithang monastery at the age of seven. For years, he worked to develop social, medical, educational and religious institutions for Tibetan nomads in the area, as an advocate for environmental conservation in the face of indiscriminate logging and mining projects, and as a mediator between Tibetans and Chinese.

Because of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s influence in his community and his efforts to preserve Tibetan identity, the Chinese authorities viewed him as a threat to their control in the region. Over the course of a decade, he was the target of increasing harassment and intimidation by Chinese officials.

Young exile Tibetans at a Tenzin Delek RinpocheIn April 2002, the Chinese authorities arrested Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and his distant relative Lobsang Dhondup, a former monk. Both were accused of involvement in bombings and explosions.

On 2 December 2002, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was sentenced to death with a two year suspension. Lobsang Dhondup was sentenced to immediate death and executed shortly afterward. After intense international pressure, Tenzin Delek’s sentence was commuted to a life sentence on 26 January 2005.

According to Human Rights Watch, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s case “was the culmination of a decade-long effort by Chinese authorities to curb his efforts to foster Tibetan Buddhism, his support for the Dalai Lama as a religious leader, and his work to develop Tibetan social and cultural institutions. His efforts had become a focal point for Tibetans struggling to retain their cultural identity in the face of China’s restrictive policies and its continuing persecution of individuals attempting to push the accepted boundaries of cultural and social expression.”

Group protest regarding Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's imprisonmentThe international outcry over the case of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche led the Chinese authorities to give assurances that both he and Lobsang Dhondup would receive a thorough retrial.

Whilst awaiting the appeal hearing in 2003, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche said: “I am completely innocent… I have always said we should not raise our hand at others. It is sinful… I have neither distributed letters or pamphlets nor planted bombs secretly. I have never even thought of such things, and I have no intention to hurt others.”

However, on 26 January 2003, the Sichuan Higher People’s Court upheld Lobsang Dhondhup’s death sentence and confirmed Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s two year suspended death sentence. Lobsang Dhondup was executed the same day.

After two years of advocacy by thousands of people around the world, on 26 January 2005, the Chinese authorities commuted Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s death sentence to life imprisonment.

Local efforts to secure Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s release had been ongoing since at least April 2007. In November 2009, a group of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s relatives and friends traveled to Beijing to request a further review of the case, on the basis of three points; that there was no proof against Tenzin Delek, that he refused to admit any guilt, and that he was framed by an official plot.

Tenzin Delek told told a family member during a visit at the prison; “I am not responsible for these explosions or any other illegal actions, they have pinned this on me, I have always taught people that one should not harm any life, not even that of an ant, how could I then possibly be responsible for such an action? If it is possible to appeal, there is hope that I may be cleared of all charges.”

The petitioners were urged to return to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province. Local people in Tenzin Delek’s home area heard about the petitioners’ visit to Beijing and decided to take action. For several days, scores of Tibetans in and around Tenzin Delek’s village peacefully gathered and held hunger strikes in support of their imprisoned spiritual leader; there were numerous beatings by the police and up to 90 demonstrating Tibetans were arrested; some may still be in detention.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche first came under close Chinese government scrutiny after he returned to Tibet from India in 1987.

Upon his return Chinese authorities began obstructing his social and religious development efforts. But he was undeterred. When faced with government objections to build a new monastery, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche traveled to Beijing and obtained official permission from the 10th Panchen Lama. Between 1991 and 1995 he built seven monasteries and oversaw the construction of an old people’s home and a school for orphans and children from poor families.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was very aware of the importance of ecological balance in the fragile Tibetan environment. He spoke out about mining practices that would pollute the areas’ rivers and ruin the soil, logging practices that would cause flooding and soil erosion, and indiscriminate hunting that might lead to species loss. Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s awareness raising caused concern amongst local officials who saw them as an obstacle to activities from which they are reported to have personally profited from. A dispute over a local forest led to an increase in Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s prestige, and enhanced his monastic influence. Local residents looked increasingly to him to help solve problems; and local officials’ resentments against him grew ever stronger.

In the late 1990s Chinese authorities increased their surveillance of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s activities and in June 2000 he recorded the following statement: “Recently, I was called to the Religious Affairs Bureau and the United Front Work Department. … They told me, “You cannot have photos of the 14th Dalai Lama, the young Panchen Lama, or pictures of yourself.” And they said, “The pictures are getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and you cannot do that. And you cannot have a lama’s title.” I told them that … I did not need the title of lama; I did not need the title of monk, but I did need the rights of a human being.”

Acknowledgements to Human Rights Watch, International Campaign for Tibet and High Peaks Pure Earth



Key Facts

Summary: Highly respected community leader and advocate of Tibetan identity and culture
Charge: Trumped up charges of
Sentence: Death Sentence with 2 year reprieve, commuted to a Life Sentence
Prison: Unknown
Status: Died in prison on 12 July 2015