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Political Prisoner Rights and Chinese 'Justice' / Detention Centres in Tibet

According to Chinese law, people can be detained in the following three ways:

1. The judicial process, which includes a trial and sentencing by a court.
2. An administrative sentencing for up to three years, which does not require any trial or court action.
3. With no legal process, where suspects are detained for a certain period of time, and then released without being charged or sentenced.

Prisoners who have been sentenced through the judicial system are detained in either prisons or laogai (reform through labour centres). According to the 1997 revised Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) there are now no more laogai, although some of the prisons in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) still make extensive use of forced labour and can be said to be laogai in all but name. There are also many forced labour camps in non-TAR Tibet, especially in the Qinghai Province, which is reputed to have the largest concentration of laogai in China.

Administrative sentences are decided upon with no trial, and no defence is possible. Those prisoners sentenced administratively are sent to laojiao (re-education through labour centres), and the maximum sentence is three years. The work done at these institutions ranges from tending vegetables and emptying septic pits to cutting stone blocks and construction work. The most well known laojiao is colloquially known as Trisam Prison, and is situated 14 km west of the Lhasa City centre.

The prisoners detained without any legal process are sent to Public Security Bureau (PSB) Detention Centres. To give an idea of prisoners rights, according to the revised CPL, the maximum length of time a prisoner can be detained without being formally arrested is three months. However, there are numerous perfectly legal ways (according to Chinese law) that this period can be extended to six months, a year or even longer. There is at least one PSB Detention Centre for each county, prefecture and province. In the TAR alone, there are 78 county PSB Detention Centers, seven prefectural ones and one at provincial level. Prisoners sentenced administratively are also sometimes held in PSB Detention Centres. Prisoners held in PSB Detention Centres who have not yet been sentenced are not generally allowed to leave their cells except for interrogation and five minutes once a day to empty their toilet container. They have nothing to do all day except wait to be interrogated again. They are often either kept in solitary confinement or not allowed to talk to their cellmates. The most well known PSB Detention Centre is commonly known as 'Gutsa Prison'. Gutsa is the PSB Detention Center for the Lhasa prefecture.

Prisons in the Tibetan Autonomous Region

Drapchi Prison

Drapchi Prison, officially TAR Prison Number One, is situated in the northeast outskirts of Lhasa City, a short bicycle ride from several tourist hotels. Over 620 political prisoners have been held at Drapchi since 1987, out of which around 140 are still being detained there. Drapchi is one of the worst chinese prisons and has the worst record in Tibet for death due to severe abuse while in custody, with at least 25 deaths due to severe abuse since 1989.

Powo Tramo

Officially TAR Prison Number Two, Powo Tramo lies 650 km east of Lhasa in Pome County, in the Kongpo Prefecture. Seven political prisoners are currently serving sentences there, and since 1987, at least 16 have been held there. Powo Tramo is notorious for its harsh conditions caused by cold, damp weather and difficult forced labor linked to the forestry industry.

Lhasa Prison (Utritru)

Lhasa Prison, formerly known as Utritru Prison, is about three kilometers northeast of the Jokhang Temple, and is part of a group of prisons collectively known as Sangyib. Despite its central location, only 30 political prisoners have been held at Lhasa Prison, and none are currently there. After the May 1998 protests at Drapchi though, several political prisoners were held in the solitary confinement cells at Lhasa Prison, as all those at Drapchi were occupied. Most of the forced labor involves making bricks and cutting stone blocks.

Prisons in non-TAR Tibet

Maowun Prison

Maowun Prison is situated in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, in Sichuan Province. Several political prisoners have been sent to Maowun from neighboring Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP). During the 1990s, at least 15 Tibetan political prisoners have been held at Maowun Prison, out of which eight are still serving sentences there.


The Rang-nga-khang is actually a network of prisons located in Dardo and Dawu counties, Kardze TAP. Prisoners are sent to gold mines there, and are made to fulfill daily excavation quotas despite meager food and little sleep. According to Tsering Dorje, who was detained there in the early 1990s, prisoners are often beaten there, sometimes so badly that limbs were broken and eyes dislodged. Several Chinese prisoners, who had no relatives to supplement food, were driven to suicide, while other prisoners injured or mutilated themselves to avoid excavation work. It is not clear how many Tibetan political prisoners are currently serving sentences there.

Other Prisons Where Tibetans are Held

There are at least ten laogai in or around Xining, Qinghai Prefecture. At these laogai a variety of products, such as steel products, leather and fur clothes, and hydroelectric equipment are produced.

This is an area with a high Tibetan population, but it is not clear how many Tibetans are being detained there. It seems that many Tibetans are being held at the Hydroelectric Equipment Factory (234 out of a total of about 900 prisoners), and it has been reported that some political prisoners have been held there.

Laojiao (Re-education through Labor Centers) in the TAR

Trisam Laojiao

Trisam Laojiao opened in 1992, and is situated 14km to the west of Lhasa City center. About 170 political prisoners have been detained at Trisam, but only five are currently serving sentences there. Prisoners are made to work in the vegetable gardens or on construction sites, where they have to cut stone blocks and carry heavy stone blocks and bricks as well as other general building work. Prisoners work over eight hours a day, and are given days off about once a fortnight. The work is very strenuous and it is not uncommon for prisoners to faint while they are working. Prisoners sometimes become so weak that they cannot walk properly and have to lean on the wall for support.

Four prisoners are known to have died as a result of abuse at Trisam, three of them soon after release and one while in custody. The youngest victim was Sherab Ngawang, who was only twelve years old when she was arrested for joining an independence demonstration in 1992. She was sentenced to three years imprisonment and then sent to Trisam, where she was constantly being beaten, sometimes with electric prods. She died on April 17, 1995 at the age of fifteen. Reports from her funeral indicate that her stomach and kidneys were badly damaged.

Chamdo Laojiao

Chamdo Laojiao opened in 1998, and is near Chamdo, the capital of the Chamdo Prefecture. Six political prisoners have been held there, but none are believed to be serving sentences there now.

Other Laojiao Where Tibetans are Held

Xinhua Laojiao

Xinhua Laojiao is situated in Mianyang municipality, 220km north of Chengdu, in northern Sichuan. The work done at Xinhua is mainly construction work. In October 1999, several protests were held against the arrest of a respected Buddhist teacher, Sonam Phuntsog, in Kardze county town, in Kardze TAP. Following these demonstrations twelve Tibetans are known to have been arrested and sent to Xinhua Laojiao.

At Xinhua, two Tibetans died last year. They collapsed while being forced to work in the hot summer weather last year. They were not given water or medical treatment and died shortly afterwards. One of those who died has been identified as Tsering Wangdrak, who was married with two young children. He was reportedly beaten unconsciousness at least once while he was being detained at Kardze county PSB Detention Center, and continued to be beaten at Xinhua.

Public Security Bureau Detention Centres

Gutsa PSB Detention Centre

This is the Lhasa's prefectural PSB Detention Center, and is situated a few kilometers east of Lhasa City center. In the period since 1987, more political prisoners have been detained at Gutsa than anywhere else. Most of the political prisoners sentenced to Drapchi undergo interrogation at Gutsa, and many more are detained for a while and then released without charge.

Prison officers at Gutsa are renowned for the barbaric measures they use while interrogating prisoners: beatings are standard and electric prods are often used. According to Gyaltsen Choetso: 'When I was first taken to Gutsa, they stripped me naked and used electric prods and beat me all over my bodyc There were around sixty or seventy prison guards who tortured prisoners and beat us with iron rods and wooden sticks.'

At least four people have died as a direct result of abuse at Gutsa.

Sitru PSB Detention Centre

One of the Sangyib family of prisons, Sitru is situated to the north of Lhasa Prison. Many of those held at Sitru have been suspected of having had contact with 'foreigners', especially Tibetans living in exile, or have been abroad themselves, and have been accused of trying to send human rights information out of the country. Over 110 political prisoners have been detained at Sitru.

Shigatse (Nyari) PSB Detention Center

Shigatse Prefecture PSB Detention Center, colloquially known as Nyari, is where Tibetans who are caught trying to cross the Tibet-Nepal border without proper documentation are generally held.

Other PSB Detention Centers

Many political prisoners have also been held at Lhoka and Chamdo Prefectures' PSB Detention Centers. It is not clear how many are currently being detained at either of these sites.


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