Go Sherab Gyatso, summer 2020.
(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately and unconditionally release the imprisoned Tibetan monk and religious philosopher Go Sherab Gyatso, Human Rights Watch said today.
Close associates outside of Tibet say Go Sherab Gyatso’s health has recently worsened. He suffers from a chronic lung condition, and may not be receiving adequate medical treatment in prison.
“Once again the Chinese government’s wrongful imprisonment of a Tibetan risks becoming a death sentence,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Go Sherab Gyatso should be immediately released and given comprehensive medical care.”
Ministry of State Security agents detained Go Sherab Gyatso, 45, on October 26, 2020, in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, the Chinese authorities said in an August 2021 statement, in response to an inquiry from three United Nations human rights experts. The authorities transferred him to Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), where, on February 3, 2021, he was formally charged with “inciting secession.” The government statement said he was later tried but did not give the date or outcome of the trial. Tibetan sources outside the country report he was given a 10-year sentence and is in Chushul Prison, 20 kilometers southwest of Lhasa.
Exile sources report that no visitors have been allowed to see Go Sherab Gyatso and that he is in poor health. The Chinese authorities had previously detained him on at least three other occasions. He contracted a chronic lung condition while serving a three-year sentence for undisclosed reasons from November 1998 to November 2001. He was on a routine visit to Chengdu for treatment of his medical condition in October 2020 when State Security agents seized him.
The recent reports about Go Sherab Gyatso’s health cannot be independently verified, Human Rights Watch said. However, there have been a number of cases in which Chinese authorities have allowed people in Tibet and across China who were arbitrarily detained on politically motivated charges to die in custody for lack of appropriate medical care.
The eminent Chinese writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was serving an 11-year term for “subversion,” died in July 2017 from liver cancer for which he received inadequate treatment and was denied foreign medical care. The prominent Tibetan lama and philanthropist Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died in a prison in Chengdu in July 2015, after serving 13 years of a life sentence for “terrorism and inciting separatism,” during which he was reportedly denied medical care for a heart condition and family members were allowed to visit him only once.
Human Rights Watch has reported on the deaths of three Tibetans due to severe ill treatment in custody since October 2020, Lhamo, Tenzin Nyima, and Kunchok Jinpa. Exile media sources have reported additional such deaths, including of a man named Norsang in 2019, and the deaths of four former political detainees between 2018 and 2020 – Shonnu Palden, Pema Wangchen, Gendun Sherab, and Choeki – following mistreatment in custody.
The same sources have also reported three cases of prisoners released between December 2019 and February 2021 – Tsegon Gyal, Dolkar, and Gangbu Rikgye Nyima – who were in a critical condition due to their treatment in custody, and of another seriously ill Tibetan prisoner, Dhongye, who remains in custody.
Chinese authorities have not publicly produced evidence to substantiate the secession charge against Go Sherab Gyatso. The charge typically refers to support for Tibetan independence. Human Rights Watch has found no indication of such support in his writings and speeches, or in statements from those familiar with his life and work. Human Rights Watch takes no position regarding the political status of Tibet but supports everyone’s right to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal.
Human Rights Watch is further concerned that Go Sherab Gyatso was tried in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) even though he lived in a Tibetan area of Sichuan and was detained in that province. He studied at Sera monastery in Lhasa from 2002 to 2008, but has no other known connection to the TAR.
There is no indication that he committed any crime in the TAR or elsewhere, suggesting that the authorities detained and prosecuted him to intimidate other Tibetan monks and writers. The TAR authorities pursue more aggressive policies than those in other Tibetan areas of China, but it is rare for the TAR authorities to detain a person from outside the TAR and charge them for an alleged crime with no obvious connection to the region.
“The Chinese authorities’ determination to systematically silence Tibetan scholars is clear evidence that their aim is to devastate Tibetan culture, language, and religion,” Richardson said. “Go Sherab Gyatso’s immensely important work should not put him in prison at risk for his life.”
For additional information about Go Sherab Gyatso and other detained Tibetans, please see below.
Go Sherab Gyatso’s Life and Work
Go Sherab Gyatso is known as a leading advocate of a modernized, liberal approach to religious education and belief in Tibet. He is the author of at least nine books, the most recent of which consists of transcripts of his lectures at religious studies events on theological and monastic issues.
His books and lectures, some of which are available online, include occasional references to social issues, such as criticism of censorship within Tibetan monasteries and in society generally. In a 2013 essay opposing the leadership of Kirti monastery, he noted in passing that “any power that people cannot criticize is dictatorial” and that “any nation or organization that fears criticism and uses arrests or violence to silence opposition has become a thorn in people’s eyes.” The only criticism of the Chinese government was an incidental comment that “the red wind from outside is so strong and its orders so strict that we have barely space to breathe in and breathe out.”
In 2016-2017, he spent three semesters as an affiliate student at Zhongshan University in Guangdong, China, where he attended lectures on Western philosophy. He is described in a 2019 academic study published in China as “one of the most outstanding figures [among Tibetan Buddhist monks in having] a solid foundation of Buddhist culture accumulated under the traditional monastery education system while at the same time absorbing and mastering the essence of Chinese and Western culture and modern scientific knowledge.”
Go Sherab Gyatso’s political views appeared in a book published in 2011, Basic Knowledge and the Path (rgyun shes dang lam), which included Tibetan translations of three essays by Liu Junning, a prominent political scientist in Beijing. The essays supported applying principles of democracy and human rights in the Chinese context. Liu has never been charged with any crime and continues to hold a position at an official institute, making it unlikely that these translations led to Go Sherab Gyatso’s 2020 arrest.
Go Sherab Gyatso’s publication of these essays and other peaceful expressions of opinion are a protected right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by China in 1998. In addition, China’s Constitution guarantees freedom of speech for all Chinese citizens.
Go Sherab Gyatso was born in Ngawa (Ch.: Aba), a Tibetan area of Sichuan province, in 1976. He is the son of Go-ngün Tsöndru, a leading figure in the pre-Chinese government in Ngawa and later an opponent of Chinese rule there until he fled to Nepal in 1990. Go Sherab Gyatso became a monk at Kirti monastery, then the largest monastery in Tibet, when he was 10 years old and quickly gained attention as a leading student. In 1992, he briefly visited India and Nepal on pilgrimage, and visited Nepal again in 1998 following the death of his father.
In 1998, Go Sherab Gyatso was detained at Kirti monastery and sentenced to three years in prison. The reason for this is unclear; reportedly the police questioned him after he objected to official demands to remove a portrait of the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, from a temple in Kirti monastery during a ceremony in late 1997. During 1998, the Chinese authorities imposed a punitive campaign of political education at the monastery, provoking resistance from the monks, but he seems not to have been actively involved.
While in prison, Go Sherab Gyatso learned Chinese from another prisoner and studied Western philosophy. He was released on November 11, 2001, and resumed his studies as a monk and writer, moving the following year to study at Sera monastery in Lhasa. In 2007, he published his first book, Time for Us to Wake Up (nga tsho sad ran). The book, issued by the prestigious government-run Gansu Nationalities Publishing House, expresses his views on the importance of sustaining and furthering Tibet’s religious and cultural traditions. The book led to his emergence as a leading public intellectual among Tibetans.
In April 2008, following a wave of anti-Chinese protests across Tibet, Go Sherab Gyatso was among 1,000 monk-students whom the authorities deported from Sera and other monasteries in Lhasa on the pretext that they were not residents of the TAR. The monk-students were arbitrarily detained for “legal education” for four months in Golmud, Qinghai. He was allowed to resume his studies at Kirti monastery in August 2008. He was detained again in April 2011, possibly because of suspicions that some of his writings contained criticisms of China or its policies toward Tibetans, but was released without charge after a few months.
In 2013, he left Kirti monastery after he publicly condemned the monastery’s support for censorship of monks’ writings. Since then, he has continued his studies and writing, including drafts of two books on Western philosophy and the history of science.
Other Imprisoned Tibetan Writers
The Chinese government has imprisoned a number of Tibetan philosophers, intellectuals, and writers since 2019. Other recently detained or arrested writers include:
Gangkye Drubpa Kyab, 42, and Senam (age unknown) of Serta county, Kandze prefecture, Sichuan, were detained on March 23 and April 2, 2021, respectively, according to reports. Both had been detained previously. Drubpa Kyab suffers ill health as a result of his 2012-2016 imprisonment. Their current whereabouts and status are unknown.
Gendun Lhundrup, 47, of Rebkong county, Malho prefecture, Qinghai, was detained on December 2, 2020, and his whereabouts are unknown. He has reportedly been detained and interrogated on several occasions in the past.
Rinchen Tsultrim, 29, of Ngawa county, Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan, was detained on August 2, 2019, and sentenced to four and a half years in prison in November 2020, on the charge of “publicly disseminating text, voice and visual information …with the aim of inciting secession and undermining national unity.”
Dhi Lhaden (Lobsang Lhundrup), 50, of Pema county, Golok prefecture, Qinghai, was detained in June 2019, and sentenced to four years in prison in 2021.
Ra Tsering Dondrub of Khyungchu county, Ngawa prefecture, Sichuan, died in September 2021 at age 34 due to injuries suffered during his 2010-2013 imprisonment.
The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy announced three other previously unpublicized cases of Tibetan writers detained for the peaceful expression of views – Goyon, 33, Sabuchey, 34, and Rongwo Gangkar, 46 – in December 2021.
A Tibetan exile scholar was quoted anonymously in the Tibetan Centre’s recent report:
A common characteristic among those detained individuals is their extensive scholarship on Tibetan language, culture, [and] literature that have captured the imagination of many young Tibetans. This appears to be the sole reason behind their detention because there is no instance of any of them violating any domestic laws.
Human Rights Watch has information on at least two other senior Tibetan lamas or intellectuals recently detained and still believed to be in custody, but is not identifying them out of concern about retaliation by the authorities.