China has detained and forced into re-education classes hundreds of Tibetans who went to India to receive religious instruction from the Dalai Lama, a U.S.-based human rights group said.
It is the first time since the late 1970s that Chinese authorities have detained large numbers of ordinary Tibetans and placed them into re-education classes, Human Rights Watch said in an online statement. Tibetan monks and nuns are routinely made to attend patriotic education classes.
The statement posted Thursday said the exact number of those detained was unclear, but that it was believed to be several hundred.
It said the detainees had recently returned from Bihar, India, where they had attended lectures with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' exiled spiritual leader who fled the Himalayan region in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule and is reviled by Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a regular press briefing Friday that China was stepping up security measures in Tibet to prevent separatist violence or incitement in the run-up to the anniversary of the March 14, 2008, riots in the regional capital, Lhasa, that left 22 people dead.
Liu was asked by a reporter to comment on the Human Rights Watch report but didn't directly respond to the allegations and made no mention of mass detentions.
"Separatist organizations based overseas have made March of every year an important period for advocating violence and inciting separatism," Liu said. "During this period, stepped up security in Tibetan areas will help crack down on separatist and sabotage activities and maintain social stability."
Lhasa police and government officials said Friday that they were unaware of the alleged detentions.
Human Rights Watch said the Tibetans were being held in makeshift detention centers in Lhasa and other areas, including some set up at an army base, an army training center and a shelter for vagrants, as well as in hotels.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of a campaign to split Tibet from the rest of China. The Dalai Lama says he is seeking only increased autonomy for Tibet.
Human Rights Watch said around 700 ethnic Chinese also attended the Dalai Lama lectures, but that there were no reports of any of them being detained upon return to China.
Tibetan areas in the neighboring provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai have also been on tenterhooks for more than a year as more than a dozen monks, nuns and laypeople separately set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.
The violence has highlighted anew what Tibetan activists say is the government's failure to win over Tibetans and other ethnic minorities through policies to boost economic growth and incomes while increasing police presence and controlling religious practices to deter displays of separatism.