Child prisoners in Tibet

The rights of Tibetan Children continue to be involved by the Chinese government in blatant for their international legal obligation under the UN Convention on the rights of the child (CRC) to which the People’s Republic of China is a State Party. Juveniles such as Sonam Choephel are arbitrary detained for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression, imprisoned together with adult prisoners and separated from legal representation and contact with their family.

Sonam Choephel, a 17-year-old monk, is the youngest of three sons in his family. Sonam’s father is deceased and his mother lives with his two elder brothers in Lhoka, 191 km south of Lhasa. Sonam was a monk at Dhunpu Choekor Monastery which had approximately 70 monks.

In 1992 when Sonam was 13 years old, he and two other monks named Jamphel Dorji and Phurbu Tashi, both of similar age to Sonam, pasted wall posters reading Free Tibet in Chideshol in Lhoka. They were arrested by the Public Security Bureau (PSB) just ten days later, detained for five days and subsequently released.

On 5 August 1993 Sonam, Jamphel and Phurbu again pasted posters. Jampel and Phurbu were immediately arrested and six weeks later, on 15 September 1996, Sonam was also arrested.

Article 37 (b) of CRC clearly states that no child shall be deprived of his of her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. Even the “Lawful” arrest , detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a “last resort and for the shortest appropriate time.”

Contrary to this provision, all three boys were taken to Tsethang prison where they were detained for four months. They were kept incommunicado, in violation of article 37 (c0 of CRC which states that every child deprived of liberty “shall have the right to maintain contact with her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances”. Each boy save spent his time in Tsethang in solitary confinement.

While in prison, they were interrogated several times as to why they engaged in “counter-revolutionary” activities and Sonam maintained the same answer, “In one’s country, one must have freedom of expression”. As this initial period of detention was considered a chance for “reformation”, Sonam’s answer was deemed unsatisfactory and he was subsequently sentenced and transferred to Toelung Prison.

Sonam, aged only 14 at the time, was sentenced to three years while Jamphel and Phurbu each received sentences of two and a half years. Again the principle incorporated in article 37(b) was contravened.

In Toelung the boys were mixed with people of varied ages and crime. Only at mealtime did children prisoners sit at a table separated from the adults. This constitutes a further violation of article 37(c) which requires that child prisoners “shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interests not to do so.”

Sonam provided the names of four other juvenile prisoners who were also in Toelung Prisons who were also in Toelung Prison: Migmar, a 16-year-old monk from Nyethang; Pema Choedak, a 16-year-old monk from Phenpo; Gyakloe, a 17-year-old monk from Kyimshe village in Sungrabling monastery, and Luesang, a 16-year-old monk from Taktse. All four are still serving their term in Toelung prison.

Sonam was released on 14 August 1996 aged 17 years. Jampel and Phurbu were released six months earlier. Soon after Sonam’s release, using a valid travel pass, Sonam went by bus as far as Dram, on the Tibet-Nepal border, after which he had to walk for four nights in a Nepalese costume. He finally reached Dharamsala, India, on 16 February 1997.

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