New reports on Ngaba prison

from TIN News Update / 27 April 2001

New reports have reached TIN about conditions in Ngaba prison in Sichuan province, highlighting the prison's increasing importance as a place of detention for political prisoners. Fourteen Tibetan political prisoner are currently being held in Ngaba prison in Maowun county (Chinese: Maoxian) in Ngaba (Ch: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. Eleven of the 14 are monks, including three monks from Kirti monastery in the prefecture, five monks from Kardze Gepheling monastery in neighbouring Kardze (Ch: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, one monk from Lithang and a Tibetan lama who was sentenced to six years after expressing his opposition to local government policies linked to gold mining near his monastery. A reliable report indicates that Sonam Phuntsog, the senior religious teacher and scholar whose detention sparked off major demonstrations in Kardze in October 1999, is also being held in Ngaba prison, serving five years.

The Tibetan political prisoners currently held at Ngaba prison were detained at various stages during the 1990s and are serving sentences of between three and ten years for political activities including the distribution of pro-independence leaflets and putting up the Tibetan flag. According to a former prisoner, the Kardze monks imprisoned in Ngaba were detained in 1998 for "putting up Free Tibet posters or shouting for Free Tibet". One of the most well-known political detainees in Ngaba prison, Kabukye Rinpoche, head of Nubzur monastery in Serthar (Ch: Seda) county in Kardze, was arrested on 10 June 1996 after he wrote a letter to the authorities protesting against the exploitation of a gold mine near his monastery and the influx of Chinese migrants that had occurred as a result. Kabukye Rinpoche is highly respected as a scholar and spiritual leader among the Nubzur monks and the local community, and his arrest five years ago caused widespread anger among Tibetans. At the time, Kabukye Rinpoche reportedly sent a message to the people of Serthar saying that all he had done was to put on paper some of his thoughts, and he urged them to remain calm.

Sonam Phuntsog, a well-known scholar and Tibetan language teacher in his forties, is also believed to be imprisoned in Ngaba. His arrest appears to have been linked to the authorities' concern over his influence in the area and his apparent loyalty to the Dalai Lama. Following Sonam Phuntsog's initial detention on 24 October 1999, hundreds of people took to the streets in Kardze town to demand his release, and the authorities' fears of further unrest may have led them to carry out Sonam Phuntsog's trial and sentencing away from his home county, Kardze. Reports on where he is serving his sentence have differed, but the most substantial account received by TIN so far says that he has been transferred to Ngaba prison. Other reports have suggested that he is held in Dartsedo (Ch: Kangding) the capital of Kardze TAP. It is likely that Sonam Phuntsog would have been held there at some point, either in connection with investigation and court procedures, or in transit to Ngaba prison.

Tibetan political prisoners from neighbouring Kardze county may be being transferred to Ngaba Prison for security reasons. Kardze TAP's main prison complex, at Xinduqiao (Tib: Minyag), is an older facility and may not be considered as high security as Ngaba Prison. The location of the Xinduqiao complex in an area where the majority of the population is Tibetan, and adjacent to a main highway that runs through much of Kardze TAP, would make it easier for family members to visit imprisoned relatives. Maowun county, in contrast, is home to almost no Tibetans (under one per cent) and is accessible from Kardze TAP only by undertaking a return journey that would be relatively expensive, potentially arduous, and take several days.

Conditions at Ngaba prison

A former political prisoner at Ngaba prison who is now in exile reported that political prisoners were generally treated more severely than criminal prisoners in Ngaba prison. He said that physical abuse, including torture, was commonplace, that cells were overcrowded, and that political prisoners were dispersed among criminal prisoners. The former political prisoner told TIN: "One of the big problems was that there was not enough food. Our families sent us butter, meat and money, but the police kept these. If two people fought and one was a political prisoner and the other was a thief, then the political prisoner would be beaten, but not the thief. If we were sick there was only one type of medicine given to prisoners, for headaches, but this wasn't given to political prisoners. They said, now you are sick, you can pray to the Dalai Lama and to America to help you." The former prisoner also claimed that political prisoners were not permitted to receive visits from family members. This may have been less a matter of the prison's policy than the result of obstacles such as long, expensive journeys from remote counties, or high "fees" demanded by prison officials.

The same former political prisoner said that he suffered maltreatment during interrogation sessions, which continued throughout his imprisonment. He also indicated that prisoners were supposed to speak only in Chinese to prison staff, and that there were restrictions on speaking Tibetan. He told TIN that if prison guards found religious materials such as prayer beads, blessing cords or photos of the Dalai Lama, they confiscated them and "stamped on them". When the then US President Bill Clinton visited China in June 1998, prison guards also taunted the political prisoners with comments tha they should hope for Bill Clinton to come and help them.

A second former political prisoner who was held in Ngaba prison said that prisoners at Ngaba had to buy prison uniforms themselves, and if they were found without a uniform, they would be beaten and punished. The former prisoner, who is also now in exile, claimed that Chinese prisoners received a special allowance for these uniforms but that Tibetans did not. "Prices charged for buying anything from the prison store were twice the market price," he told TIN. The former detainee also reported that visitors to Tibetan prisoners were charged a fee of a few yuan, which is a normal procedure in Tibetan prisons.

The same Tibetan told TIN that many prisoners who are malnourished and suffering from illness are still forced to carry out labour duties. He cites symptoms of malnourishment such as loss of hair pigmentation and pallor of the skin, and says: "As a consequence their physical health deteriorates rapidly, and often the weaker prisoners fall down unconscious." While this prisoner experienced forced labour conditions, the other former prisoner reported that he was kept confined to his cell-block and was not made to work.

One former prisoner explained that there were eight cells in his block, each with 18 inmates, a description which accords closely with photographs of the prison. In addition to the four main cell- blocks, there are several other structures within the prison walls. The largest are three factory-style buildings that do not reveal outward signs of their function as cell-blocks. Photographs now available for viewing on the Tibet website at: show an overview of the entire prison and main outlying buildings, with a close-up of the gate area and one section of the work area, apparently for making cement-based construction materials. One photograph shows the meeting area of the prison, which includes a raised platform and a slogan on the wall: "Raise the sail of idealism; speed towards the shores of a new life". Prison forced-labour enterprises, such as construction companies and factories, often include the term "new life" in their names. In addition to the main cell-blocks there is also an area of the prison that appears to be designed for punishment, including small isolation cells, with higher security than the rest of the prison.