BEIJING >> Authorities in southwest China on Thursday cremated the body of a prominent Tibetan monk who died in prison last week, ignoring the pleas of relatives, religious leaders and thousands of supporters who had demanded that they be allowed to carry out funeral rites integral to Tibetan Buddhism.
Relatives of the monk, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, said prison officials in Sichuan province had brushed aside their requests and hastily cremated his body early Thursday, a move likely to exacerbate protests that have already turned violent in recent days.
"I think they were afraid people would see the body and know that it was not a natural death," a cousin, Geshe Jamyang Nyima, said in a Skype interview.
Rights advocates have been calling for an investigation into the death of Tenzin Delek, a revered community leader who had been serving a life sentence on charges of terrorism and incitement of separatism. During his 13 years in prison, Tenzin Delek repeatedly maintained his innocence, saying accusations that he had orchestrated a series of bomb blasts in 2002 were fabricated by officials unhappy with his growing public stature.
Alarmed by accounts of his failing health, family members in recent years had been petitioning Beijing to grant Tenzin Delek medical parole, a campaign that drew support from Tibetan exile groups, Western governments and thousands of his followers in China. This week, the State Department and the European Union called on the Chinese government to release his body.
Prison officials in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, could not be reached for comment on Thursday but relatives say they have repeatedly declined to give a cause of death.
Family members say Tenzin Delek was in good health before his arrest, but that he had developed a heart ailment they attribute to the abuse they say he suffered while in custody.
"From their earliest efforts at harassing him, all the way through to their disposal of his body, Chinese authorities’ treatment of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche has demonstrated utter contempt for their own laws and for religious traditions," said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch. "To have allowed someone who had been tortured and denied medical care to die in detention is the height of cruelty."
Tenzin Delek was one of China’s most high-profile political prisoners, and his death and hasty cremation are likely to aggravate tensions in a region already bristling with anti-government sentiment.