Former Tibetan political prisoner Sonam Gyalpo, who spent 16 years in prison for his involvement in the Tibetan independence movement, died on Aug. 16 at the age of 68 at his home in Lhasa.
Gyalpo’s official cause of death was not released, though individuals close to him believe that his death was the result of poor health brought on by his years of imprisonment.
“It is clear that Sonam Gyalpo’s demise is due to his deteriorating health conditions though there is no specific health condition that we can name,” said Ngawang Woebar, a fellow monk who participated in Tibetan independence demonstrations alongside Gyalpo in 1987.
“But we all know how Tibetan political prisoners are treated inside those prisons and sadly he has spent 16 years of his life there,” he said.
“Even if he may not have been physically assaulted in those 16 years, the mere fact [is] that how the prisoners are fed would naturally leave them malnourished and sick for the rest of their lives.”
16 years in prison
Sonam Gyalpo was detained for the first time on Sept. 27, 1987, for participating in independence demonstrations. Alongside 20 other monks from Drepung Monastery, Gyalpo helped initiate the Tibetan independence movement in Lhasa.
Woebar recalls demonstrating alongside Gyalpo and witnessing his arrest.
“I was there with him during that protest in 1987 in Lhasa,” he told Radio Free Asia. “There were many of us, but Sonam Gyalpo was one of the few in the forefront and initiated the demonstration.
“However, towards the end of the protest we asked everyone who joined the protest to disperse because we did not want everyone to be arrested,” he said. “So it was Sonam Gyalpo and a few others who were arrested that day.”
Gyalpo was charged with participating in counter-revolutionary activities and sentenced to three years in Drapchi prison. He was released in September 1990.
Gyalpo was detained again in 1993 after returning to Tibet from a trip to Nepal and India to receive blessings from the Dalai Lama. According to authorities, he was arrested for traveling overseas without valid documents.
Gyalpo was arrested again in August 2005 by the Chinese Ministry of State Security at his home in Lhasa. He was among 10 Tibetans detained during the weeks preceding the 40th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Chinese officers searched his home and discovered video tapes containing religious teachings by the Dalai Lama, as well as books and pictures referencing the Dalai Lama. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Lhasa Intermediate People’s Court.
Gyalpo was released from prison for the last time in 2017.