By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - Dozens of Tibetans shouting "return the body" protested outside a prison in China on Wednesday after a prominent Tibetan monk died in jail, reflecting anger amongst his supporters and family, who believe he was murdered.
The death on Sunday of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 65, in Chuandong prison in the southwestern province of Sichuan has also caused concern overseas as he was one of China's most prominent political prisoners, with the United States calling for an investigation into his passing.
On Wednesday, up to 60 Tibetans made the long journey from Garze, a heavily Tibetan part of Sichuan, on the other side of the province from where he was jailed on charges of "crimes of terror and incitement of separatism".
They rallied outside the prison where he died, one of the protesters told Reuters. He declined to be identified for fear of retribution.
Photographs seen by Reuters, which could not independently be verified, showed dozens of police officers watching the protesters. Police and local officials could not be reached for comment.
Prison officials said they would not return Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's body, said his sister, Dolkar. His cousin, Geshe Nyima, also confirmed the protests over the release of his body.
"If the body isn't returned to us, then that tells us they have murdered him," Dolkar said. Chinese authorities have not disclosed the cause of death, relatives have said, prompting suspicion over the circumstances of his passing.
Authorities said they would cremate Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's body on Wednesday afternoon, another Tibetan protester told Reuters.
A second Tibetan protestor said on Wednesday evening that the body had not been returned to the family and officials had told them that the body has not been cremated yet.
"If they don't return the body to us, we'll just stay and sleep here," said the protester.
An official at Chuandong prison said she "was not clear", when asked whether the government was returning his body, and hung up the telephone.
The calls to release his body stem from the distrust that the Tibetans have for the Chinese government, said Tsering Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer.
Tibetans also say their tradition requires that the body be returned to the family for funeral rites.
China has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since troops took over the region in 1950, and those controls often extend to ethnic Tibetan areas in other parts of China. Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.
China fears that any unrest in Tibetan regions could pose a threat to its rule there. The government rejects criticism that it has repressed Tibetan religious freedom and culture, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.
On Tuesday, two Tibet advocacy groups, International Campaign for Tibet and Free Tibet, said Chinese security forces beat up protesters in Yajiang county that day who had called for the return of the body.
Additional photographs seen by Reuters, showed elderly Tibetans with head wounds in hospital. Those photos also could not be independently verified. Police in Yajiang county declined to comment.
(Editing by Ben Blanchard, Robert Birsel)