Authorities in western China’s Sichuan province last year seized a life-size statue of an honored Tibetan religious leader who was brought into Tibet and arrested those involved in the statue’s manufacture and transportation, the RFA has learned.
The statue of Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in 2015 in a Chinese prison under mysterious circumstances, was commissioned by the deceased monk’s students and was built by artists in Shenzhen, China, said Tenzin Yarphel, one of Tenzin Delek’s students, now living in Europe.
“The original plan was to bring Rinpoche’s statue to India, but there were too many restrictions on sending it there, so it had to be brought to Tibet and stored away until the right opportunity to move it arose,” Yarphel said.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s statue was seized in June 2021 by police in Dartsedo in Sichuan’s Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan autonomous prefecture while being taken to Lithang, the religious leader’s homeland, Yarphel said.
A Tibetan man named Kalsang Tsering, who had arranged to pick up the statue and bring it to Lithang, was then taken into custody along with an assistant, Yarphel said.
“There was no information about their whereabouts or well-being for a long time, so Tibetans living in the region began handing out flyers asking for information about them. But Chinese police later said both were in their custody.”
The two men were questioned and beaten for about 20 days and ordered to avoid any contact with Rinpoche’s family in Lithang, Yarphel said. “And they were forced to promise not to get involved in any activity like this again in the future.”
Another Tibetan and a Chinese man who had brought the statue to Dartsedo were also remanded in custody and held for nearly 20 days, Yarphel said. “And Chinese authorities also arrested the Tibetan man who had first taken care of the construction of the statue in Shenzhen, and released him after almost a month.”
Lithang police later stormed the house of Rinpoche’s younger sister Dolkar Lhamo, said a source living in Tibet.
“About 20 Public Security Bureau officers came in September to search the family shrine,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They took away all the pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other relics. They even took a picture of Nyima Lhamo, Rinpoche’s niece who now lives in New York,” he said.
Dolkar Lhamo and two other family members were then detained for about 18 days and beaten and tortured during interrogation of the statue before being released, he said.
Family threatened by police
Nyima Lhamo told RFA that she is now unable to contact her family in Lithang.
“During my last conversation with my mother, Dolkar Lhamo, she asked me not to get in touch with her anymore as she had been threatened with serious consequences by the Chinese police if she spoke to me,” she said.
“I would like to ask all human rights defenders and the United States Special Coordinator for Tibetan Affairs to take up my family’s case with the Chinese authorities to protect their freedom of movement and expression.
“I would especially like to ask the U.S. Special Coordinator to help my mother visit me here so she can get proper medical treatment in the United States,” she said.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, died in Sichuan jail on July 12, 2015, 13 years in a 22-year sentence after what rights groups and supporters called an unjustified conviction on charges of bombing a public square in Sichuan provincial capital Chengdu in April. 2002.
Generally respected among Tibetans for his efforts to protect Tibetan culture and the environment, he was initially sentenced to death, but his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. An assistant, Lobsang Dondrub, was executed almost immediately, sparking an outcry from rights activists who questioned the fairness of the trial.
Chinese authorities are now banning public discussions of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche seven years after his death, removing him from official religious history and shutting down an online chat group dedicated to his memory, Tibetan sources say.
Translated by Dorjee Damdul and Tenzin Dickyi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.