Questions remain as China says heart attack killed prominent Tibetan monk political prisoner

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche

(, Jul20, 2015) – After cremating his body with undue haste within the prison compound on Jul 16, brushing aside pleas from his family and monastery that it be released to them for the purpose of carrying out the traditional Buddhist last rites, China has said Jul 19 that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had died in prison on Jul 12 due to a sudden heart attack. However, the claim, reported by China’s official Xinhua news agency Jul 19, remains doubtful given the fact that until then officials had refused to explain how the highly revered and respected Tibetan religious leader had died, or to provide a death certificate, despite repeated requests from his family.

A’an Zhaxi, also known as Tenzin Delek, died of sudden cardiac death in a county hospital in Southwest China’s Sichuan province on July 12, Xinhua cited “local authorities” as saying. However, non-official reports based on eye-witness accounts have suggested that his body was lying in prison uniform in a cell in an unmarked high security jail located several kilometres outside Sichuan’s capital Chengdu when a total of 32 or so of his relatives and monks from his monastery were allowed to see it briefly and say a short prayer just before prison officials cremated it.

The report claimed that doctors of the prison hospital’s emergency centre had sent him for further treatment in the hospital’s ICU at 3:07 pm after a prison guard found him suffering respiratory failure and reported his condition at 2:35 pm. There is no suggestion in this part of the report that he was sent to any county hospital as suggested in the lead section of the same news report. It said A’an Zhaxi’s death was declared at 4:05 pm after all emergency treatment failed.

Apparently referring to repeated calls from government leaders and international human rights NGOs over the past several years, the report said China’s criminal law stipulated that prisoners serving life sentences were not allowed medical parole. This is the first time China has given any reason for not acceding to those requests.

Also, apparently referring to reports about neglect of his health condition by prison authorities, based on firsthand eyewitness accounts, the report claimed that In addition to the active treatment provided by the prison hospital, A’an Zhaxi had been transferred to the Dazhu County People’s Hospital for inspection and treatment 14 times, and to the Dazhou City’s Central Hospital once. However, if the authorities had been so caring about him as claimed, the question remains why he was allowed only one brief prison visit by a relative over the past 13 long years he remained in jail.

The report sought to put the blame for his poor health on Rinpoche himself. It claimed that medical experts from various hospitals gathered 10 times to scrutinize his disease and choose the best possible treatment but that many times A’an Zhaxi had “either refused to see doctors or take medicine, fluctuating his symptoms”.

Regarding the reason for his imprisonment, the report said A’an Zhaxi, born in Litang County of Garze (Tibetan: Karze) Prefecture in Sichuan Province in 1950, was given death penalty with a two-year reprieve in Jan 2003 for masterminding five terrorist bombings in the province that killed one and injured a dozen others from 2000 to 2002. Local Tibetans have said he was falsely implicated in these unsolved incidents as the Chinese leaders could not stand his activism in the areas of environment protection, cultural preservation, philanthropy, and community services and his popularity as a result of these.

The news report appears to be designed to be a response to demands by Rinpoche’s sister as well as calls from the international community for an investigation into the cause of the death. It said that on Jul 15, the Dazhou City Procuratorate came to a conclusion on A’an Zhaxi’s death following an investigation and that the prison reported his death to his relatives the same day. This also shows he died not in a county hospital but in prison.

Besides, Reuters had reported Jul 16 that Dolkar Lhamo, Rinpoche’s sister, had not only said her brother’s fingernails and mouth were black, which still remains unexplained, but also that officials had never told her the cause of his death despite repeated pleas.


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