BEIJING - Five Buddhist nuns committed suicide in a Tibetan prison after being severely beaten, shocked with cattle prods and forced to stand in the hot sun for days, according to a report to be released today.
The deaths occurred after the nuns in Drapchi Prison refused to sing patriotic Chinese songs, according to the report issued by Tibet Information Network, an independent news and research service based in London.
Although the deaths occurred in 1998 and were briefly reported last year, the document released today details for the first time the circumstances leading up to the suicides while offering a rare glimpse into the lives of political prisoners in Tibet.
The 64-page report, which contains 188 footnotes, portrays Drapchi as a brutal place where nuns were sometimes beaten senseless with wooden planks, belt buckles and rubber hoses filled with sand. Police and prison guards punished them by applying electric batons to their tongues, ears and genitalia.
The Tibet Information Network maintains research operations in India and Nepal, both neighboring Tibet. The report was pieced together over two years, relying in part on the accounts of nuns who had been released from Drapchi and then fled into exile.
"They beat us so savagely that there was blood everywhere, on the walls and on the floors," recalled former prisoner and nun, Norzin Wangmo, describing the police response after nuns shouted Tibetan independence slogans.
"They beat us with their belts, until their belts broke. "
The alleged torture at Drapchi and the subsequent suicides are part of a half-century battle between Tibetans and the Chinese government over Tibet, a remote Himalayan region larger than California and Texas combined.
In 1950, Chinese soldiers invaded Tibet, which was operating as a de-facto independent state. During the next several decades of Chinese occupation, an estimated 2,700 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed and 1.2 million Tibetans died as a result of torture, execution, war or starvation, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile, led by Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled in 1959.
Chinese officials, by contrast, portray the invasion as a "peaceful liberation" of Tibet, which was ruled at the time under a feudal theocracy. Bei- jing insists that Tibet has been a part of China since the Yuan Dynasty [1271-1368].
The People's Republic of China is celebrating the 51st anniversary of its founding this week and officials were unavailable for comment on the Drapchi prison report. In the past, though, Lobsang Geleg, the former warden at Drapchi who now oversees Tibet's prisons, has dismissed such allegations.
"We have ensured the prisoners' basic legitimate rights through legal and civilized management and ... there has been no case of violating prisoners' rights in recent years," Lobsang said in a story carried by the state-run New China news service earlier this year.
The nuns who died at Drapchi two years ago had been arrested in the mid-1990s for peacefully protesting China's occupation of Tibet and government restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. At the time, such demonstrations were small and brief. They generally consisted of monks and nuns walking the pilgrimage route in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, shouting "Free Tibet" and "Long live the Dalai Lama."
The conflict that led to the nuns' deaths began in spring 1998. According to the Tibet Information Network report, this is what happened:
Officials at Drapchi decided to hold a flag raising ceremony on China's Labor Day, May 1. During the program, prisoners were expected to sing patriotic Chinese songs. After the nuns refused, they were told they wouldn't actually have to sing, just attend.
Angered by the show of Chinese nationalism, though, prisoners turned the flag raising ceremony into a political demonstration. Instead of singing, they shouted Tibetan independence slogans. Police fired warning shots in the air and beat the prisoners into submission.
After trying to stage another ceremony - which ended in worse violence - Drapchi officials gathered the nuns together in June 1998 and demanded they sing patriotic songs.
After the nuns again refused, they were forced to stand outdoors for four straight days in the hot sun with a piece of paper between their knees and a cup of water on their heads. Officials told them they would stand the rest of their prison terms if they didn't sing.
In between standing sessions, the nuns were interrogated, beaten and subjected to electric shocks.
On the fifth day, the prisoners were given the morning off to attend to personal needs, such as washing their hair. During that time, the five nuns killed themselves, prison officials told other prisoners.
It remains unclear exactly how the women died because the prison cremated their bodies. Some prisoners speculated they might have hanged themselves or choked themselves by stuffing white devotional scarves down their throats, a symbolic method of suicide in Tibet.
After the deaths, the other nuns were confined to their cells for more than a year and not even allowed to go out to the bathroom. Tibet Information Network believes the lockdown was designed to keep people from talking about the suicides.
Choeying Kunsang, a fellow nun who provided first-hand information for the report, recalled the warnings prison officials gave her when she was released last year.
"You are not allowed to say a single word about what happened in prison," she says she was told. "If you talk about what happened in prison, we will give you a sentence twice as long as your last one."