China Releases Geshe Sonam Phuntsok Upon Completion of Prison Term

January 26, 2006

The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in Dharamsala, India, reported on October 27 that Buddhist teacher Sonam Phuntsog has been released from Chuandong No. 3 Prison in Sichuan province. On October 26, police drove him to his residence in Rongpatsang township, Kardze (Ganzi) County, Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. He was detained in October 1999 and sentenced to five years imprisonment in November 2000 on charges of separatism after he led a prayer ceremony for the Dalai Lama.

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Sonam Phuntsog’s imprisonment for leading a peaceful religious ceremony was part of Sichuan province’s current crackdown on religion, including Tibetan Buddhism. According to the official sentencing document, his defense lawyer argued that Sonam Phuntsog “had never himself spoken about “Tibetan independence” and had never intentionally incited splittism.” The prosecution countered that Sonam Phuntsog had “openly displayed a huge photograph of the Dalai Lama that he had provided himself, publicly praised the Dalai Lama, and incited the crowds of people to believe in the Dalai Lama and recite long life prayers for the Dalai Lama.” The court ruled that, “Although defendant Sonam Phuntsok and his defense attorney claim that the defendant had never said anything about “Tibetan independence,” the actions that he engaged in were sufficient evidence to objectively prove that he incited splittism and sabotaged the unity of the motherland and its minorities.”

Political imprisonment of Tibetans has been rising in Sichuan in recent years even as numbers of political prisoners in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Qinghai, and Gansu have generally trended downward. Political imprisonment of Tibetans in Sichuan is often linked to religious practice, especially devotion to the Dalai Lama. Religious leaders who publicly express faith in the Dalai Lama may face punishment, as Sonam Phuntsog’s case shows. Another popular religious figure from Kardze prefecture, Tenzin Deleg, was imprisoned in April 2002 and sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve in December 2002 on charges of conspiring to cause explosions. Citing “state secrets,” authorities have not made any evidence against him public. Another Tibetan, Lobsang Dondrub, was convicted of setting off the blasts and executed in January 2003. Tenzin Deleg’s reprieve expires on January 26, 2005. China’s law stipulates that a prisoner who “commits no intentional crime” during the period of reprieve will receive a commutation to life imprisonment. The court may reduce the sentence to a fixed term of 15-20 years if a prisoner has “performed major meritorious service.”