BEIJING (AP) — Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche has died in prison 13 years into serving a sentence for what human rights groups say were false charges that he was involved in a bombing in a public park. He was 65.
Relatives were informed of the death Sunday, New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said Monday. Police in Sichuan province in southwestern China confirmed the death but declined to give further details.
Tenzin Delek was arrested in 2002 in relation to an April 3, 2002, blast in Chengdu city that injured three people. He was sentenced to death on charges of terror and incitement of separatism a few months later. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2005, and later to 20 years' imprisonment. He continued to maintain his innocence.
He was being held in a prison in Dazhu county in Sichuan province, which borders the Tibetan region.
A woman from the Public Security Bureau in Dazhu confirmed that Tenzin Delek died Sunday. She refused to identify herself.
Students for a Free Tibet said his family members had been informed by police in Chengdu city, the capital of Sichuan province, on Sunday, but were not told how he died.
Last year, they had applied for medical parole for him on the grounds that he suffered from a heart condition, high blood pressure, dizzy spells and problems with his legs that had caused him to fall on a number of occasions.
Born in 1950 in a Tibetan area of Sichuan, Tenzin Delek stayed in India from 1982 to 1987 to study under the Dalai Lama.
During that time, the Dalai Lama recognized Tenzin Delek as a tulku, or a reincarnated lama.
In 1987 he returned to China, where he worked to establish monasteries, health clinics, small schools and orphanages, rising in prominence.
Human rights groups have said his relationship with Chinese officials took a turn for the worse when he rolled back attempts to clear forests and because of his support for the Dalai Lama, who is considered a separatist by the government.
In India, exiled Tibetans marched Monday in New Delhi and in Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama has lived since fleeing Tibet in 1959, carrying placards reading, "We want justice," and "Murdered in Prison."
His family called for authorities to release his body.
"Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was an innocent monk who suffered over 13 years of unjust imprisonment, torture and abuse in a Chinese prison for simply advocating for the rights and well-being of his people and for expressing his devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama," his India-based cousin, Geshe Nyima, said in a statement released by Students for a Free Tibet.
"The Chinese government must immediately release his body so that our family and community may perform the last Buddhist religious rites," the statement said.
The U.S. State Department said it was saddened to learn of the death of the political prisoner.
"The United States had consistently urged China to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, most recently out of concern for his health," department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. "We hope Chinese authorities will investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding his death."
Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.