Excerpt of Statement by Dr. Tenzin Choedrak
before the House International Relations Committee
Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights
May 8, 1996
Hearing on “Victims of Torture” by the subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the House Committee on International Relations.
May 8, 1996 at 2.30 p.m.
Members present: Chairman Christopher H. Smith, Ranking member Tom Lantos, and Congressman Eni f. H. Faleomavaega (D-AS).
Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, senior personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was one of the witnesses invited to testify.
Excerpts from the opening statement by Chairman Chris Smith.
“Today the subcommittee will hear testimony on the continued and widespread persistence of torture in the world today — and on what steps the United States and other free and civilized nations can do about it.
“Three of our witnesses are themselves victims of torture: a native of Uganda who suffered at the hands of the Id Amin regime, a Tibetan physician who was tortured by the Chinese Communists, and an American who became a torture victim in Saudi Arabia after he had a falling-out with his employer, the Saudi government.
“As we begin this hearing, I should say that I am proud to be the principal along with the Subcommittee’s ranking member, Congressman Tom Lantos, and 48 other co-sponsors, of H.R. 1416, the Torture victims Relief Act of 1995. The Act contains a number of important provisions designed to assist torture victims.
“First, implementation of the provision of the Convention Against Torture that prohibits the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing that he or she would be in danger of being subjected to torture. Because the United States has ratified the Convention, this provision is already binding on the United States as a matter of international law — but it has not yet been incorporated into our domestic law.
“Second, expedited processing for asylum applicants who present credible claims of subjection to torture, a presumption that such applicants shall not be detained during the pendency of their asylum claims, and a provision for taking into account the effects of torture in the adjudication of such claims.
“Third, specialized training for consular, immigration, and asylum personnel in the identification of evidence of torture, techniques for interviewing torture victims, and related subjects.
“Fourth, a Center for Disease Control study with respect to torture victims currently in the United States and the recovery services available to such persons.
“Fifth, authorization of grants for rehabilitation services for victims of torture and related purposes.
“Sixth, authorization of a voluntary contribution from the United States to the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture in the amount of $1.5 million for FY 1996 and $3 million for FY 1997.
“Finally, the bill contains an expression of the sense of the Congress that the United States shall use its voice and vote in the United Nations to support the investigation and elimination of the practices prohibited by the Convention Against Torture.
I welcome our witnesses and look forward to hearing their testimony.”
[After the testimony, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak had to leave directly for the airport on his return journey to India. As he was leaving the hearing room, Chairman Smith came down to meet him and personally thanked him for coming.]
Statement by Dr. Tenzin Choedrak before the House International Relations Committee, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, May 8, 1996
“Victim of Chinese Torture in Tibet”
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee for providing me the opportunity to testify before you today.
My name is Tenzin Choedrak and I am a practitioner of traditional Tibetan medicine. For 17 years of my life, I had to undergo different forms of torture by China’s occupying forces in Tibet. The fact that I have survived to tell this tale before this august body is not because the torture that was inflicted upon me was mild. Rather, my religious practice and my medical knowledge helped me to overcome my suffering.
It is nearly 20 years since I regained my freedom, but the memory of my prison days is still fresh in my mind. Although I live in freedom and dignity now, I am very mindful of the fact that the suffering that I endured many years ago is still occurring to thousands of Tibetans today.
A number of human rights organizations, including the International Campaign for Tibet, have documented that torture continues to be routinely practiced against Tibet’s political prisoners. Common techniques include regular beatings, the shackling of hands and feet, the use of thumb locks and the application of electric cattle prods to sensitive parts of the body, including the mouth and genitals.
Ill-treatment of Tibetans occurs even before they reach the prisons and detention centers. When a prisoner is taken to the police station on the day of detention, it is not uncommon for him or her to be beaten and tortured. In fact, new techniques are now being used against these newly detained Tibetans, techniques which leave no marks on the body. Such methods include being placed under extremely cold conditions and then being abruptly subjected to hot conditions, being made to stand barefoot for over 24 hours at a time, and being interrogated for 12 to 24 hours without food or water.
In recent years, there have been twelve documented cases of individuals who have died from ill-treatment and lack of medical care inside prisons and detention centers, and it is suspected that there are dozens more. One recent case, a twenty-four year old nun, Gyaltsen Kelsang, died in 1995 after she was beaten in prison and was forced to continue to perform hard labor without being provided medical attention.
I have also treated torture victims myself, including a 24 year old nun from Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, who escaped in 1989 after having been subjected to sticks being forced into her genitals while in incarceration. Another 24 year old nun, Soyang, who is my niece, required treatment for heart problems when she arrived into exile in 1993 because the Chinese had let dogs loose to attack her. This year, I treated a monk whose back was very swollen from severe beatings he received while in prison in Tibet. I also treated Palden Gyatso, who testified before this Subcommittee last year on the torture he received by Chinese guards in Tibet. In addition, I know of many women in nunneries in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, who have suffered torture. At the inpatient department of the medical institute in Dharamsala, where I work, we have on average of 5 patients in our beds who need medical attention for torture wounds.
My own ordeal began on March 10, 1959 when the people of Lhasa rose up in unison against China’s ten-year old occupation of Tibet. This uprising was ruthlessly suppressed by Chinese forces. In the subsequent days, there were constant sounds of artillery as Chinese military personnel bombarded Lhasa. Being one of the personal physicians of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was then residing in the residential complex of the Dalai Lama’s parents.
On the afternoon of March 22, Chinese troops arrived at our compound. Without warning, they started shooting; four people in our house who had gone out to meet the soldiers were killed immediately. The soldiers, who were armed with machine guns, then stormed the building, shooting recklessly and ransacking the entire area. Everyone living in the compound, including myself, was rounded up in one windowless room on the first floor.
The next evening, we were informed that we were being selected for “studies”, what we believed to be a euphemism for execution. We were then led out of the compound to the outskirts of the city and placed in a small room of a private house. For the next two days, we did not get any food or water. On the second night we were led from the room to the local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) headquarters and kept in a maximum security prison there. I was manacled in foot-and-a-half-long leg irons. Each time I took a step the irons pinched my skin, giving me pain.
As the days went by, I began to witness gruesome sessions of “Thamzing”, which were methods of interrogation combined with force that were peculiar to Communist Chinese officials. One such method involved tying the prisoner in such a way as to give him maximum suffering. For example, a rope was first laid across the front of the prisoner’s chest and then spiraled down each arm. The wrists were then tied together and pulled backwards over the man’s head. Next the rope-ends were drawn under either armpit, threaded through the loop on the chest and pulled abruptly down. Immediately the shoulders turned in their sockets, wrenching the prisoner in a grisly contortion without strangling him. The pain from this torture was so great that a man would invariably lose control of his bowels and bladder.
A few months after my arrest, I was put on trial and accused of being an accomplice in the uprising against the Chinese invaders. As the trial progressed, I began to realize that I was being singled out for a specific purpose: to malign and defame His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For instance, my questioners told me at one time that the way to avoid Thamzing would be to confirm that the Dalai Lama was a thief and a murderer, posing as a religious man, and that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister.
After a few days of interrogation, I was then subjected to the first of a series of Thamzing. It began one morning with the PLA commander asking my fellow prisoners to “question Tenzin Choedrak very closely. You must find the truth.” As one prisoner rose up asking me to tell everything, others grabbed me, tying my arms across a long board in a variation of the method that had previously been used. Trailing the rope off either end my arms were pulled tight even while I was asked to denounce the Dalai Lama. When I refused, the prisoners, under the watchful eyes of the guards, started beating me, pulling my hairs and ears, spitting on my face and pummeling my head. The pain in my arm was so great that I began to scream and it was only when I collapsed that the guards called for a halt. However, the beating resumed after a short rest and this pattern was repeated throughout that morning. In all, this session lasted four hours.
I was then removed from the cell and placed in solitary confinement. Of course, I was too weak to be aware of the shift in my location. It was only when I recovered that I found myself in a dark room, four by eight feet in dimension, with a small, barred window, high in one wall, and a six-inch-square hole for receiving food. On the mud floor lay a straw mat, a discarded PLA overcoat and a bucket for relieving myself. I was to spend the next four months — the remainder of the summer of 1959 — in this isolated area.
My daily routine included thinking over my “crimes” for the entire day. The door of the food portal (I only received a small steamed bun with some rice and vegetable in the morning through this) would open at regular intervals throughout the day and a guard would check to see if I was visibly pondering. My only relief was a brief glimpse of sky and breath of fresh air on the evening walk to the toilet. On the last day of each week, I would be taken out of the cell for questioning and asked what I had been thinking about for the past six days.
Halfway through July, I was subjected to a second session of Thamzing. Again, I received severe beatings which caused damage to my eyes. By the time I was dragged back to my cell, I realized that the retina of my left eye had been detached and the eyeball itself knocked to the upper left side of its socket. I could no longer focus straight ahead. I also found that the entire upper row of my teeth had come loose. Within a month, all my teeth fell out, leaving me with swollen and bloody gums. My shattered mouth and damaged eye remain a permanent scar from that particular Thamzing session. In August of that year, I subjected to an even more intense and brutal Thamzing session.
I will not trouble you with graphic details of that particular torture session. However, at the end of it, I had lost all sense of pain. My only sensation was that of an intense dryness in the mouth. As the dryness increased, I blacked out and when I regained consciousness, I was still imagining receiving blows. In reality, I was lying on the floor of the isolation cell; a bucket of cold water had just been thrown over my face. When the guards realized that I had revived, they yanked me to my feet and handcuffed me. Months later, I learned from my cellmates that when I collapsed, a PLA doctor was summoned, which was contrary to the medical attention that most Tibetans prisoners received. The doctor had pronounced that I was on the verge of death and he therefore refused to take responsibility for my case. Sometime thereafter, the Thamzing session ceased.
In October 1959, I was among 79 prisoners who were taken to China. Our journey began in November when we were put in trucks, 38 prisoners in each truck. We were forced to stand for the entire journey, which lasted ten days. On the 11th day, we reached Lake Kokonor in northeast Tibet and we were then transported east, toward Lanzhou, by train. From Lanzhou, we were split into two groups and my group was driven north, toward the Gobi desert. We finally reached Jiuzhen Prison, our destination, which was part of the dreaded gulags the Chinese had set up in the region. We were huddled together in small, cramped cells which provided only a foot and a half of space for a single prisoner.
Each day we were led to work in the fields. Guarded by PLA soldiers, who would shoot any man crossing his field’s perimeter, we had to break enough barren ground daily, including irrigation ditches, to be suitable for cultivating thirty pounds of wheat. A point system rewarded those who completed their quota, something a strong man could barely manage to do. Those who did not were punished. Returning from the day’s labor, we had to undergo political “study sessions” lasting until 10 p.m. In addition, prisoners were randomly taken for a full-day of questioning in an attempt to wear them down.
In May of 1960, six months after our arrival in Jiuzhen prison, our rations were reduced from sixteen and a half to eight and a half pounds a month. To save yet more grain, the authorities started mixing indigestible roots and barks with the food.
Hunger governed our every thought. With the beginning of summer, the first symptom of starvation appeared: extreme enervation. By July, we all resembled living skeletons. Ribs, hips and shin bones protruded from our bodies, our chests were concave, our eyes bulged and our teeth (those who still possessed them) were loose. Gradually our eyebrows and hair, once shiny and black, turned russet, then beige and then fell out, the hair coming loose from the skin with just a slight pull. No one could walk securely. Leg joints felt locked in place, our feet were dragged along, too heavy to lift. When we returned from work we literally crashed down, unable to check our fall.
The first death, which had been expected, occurred only a year and a half later. We did not grieve, however, for we had lost all of our senses except for an ability to quarrel over food. We now realized that we were sentenced to die through forced labor, instead of being executed, so that the authorities could appear blameless. Within just a few days, the next man died. From then on, an average of two to three prisoners died every week with the longest interval between deaths lasting no more than a fortnight.
Death of a fellow prisoner occasionally provided an increase in rations — for a single day at least. The loss could be hidden from the guards and the deceased’s rations obtained. I was able to share an extra ration with another prisoner through this method when we found the man lying next to me dead one morning.
As the starvation continued we began to consume our own clothes. Leather ropes, used to tie the bundles brought from Tibet, were cut into daily portions with stones and shovels. Each piece was slowly chewed during work, in the hope that some strength could thereby be gained. I owned a fur-lined jacket, which had proved invaluable through the first winter, but in the course of the following summer, I was compelled to eat it. I began eating the fur. As winter came again, I managed to roast the rest of my jacket, piece by piece, over a fire and eat it. The other prisoners and myself also picked many plants — dandelions were a favorite — walking to and from the fields. We also hunted for frogs and insects and dug for worms.
A more constant source of food was the refuse discarded by Chinese guards. Crowds of prisoners would gather around bones or fruit rinds thrown by the roadside.
As we were completing our first year in Jiuzhen, I collapsed and was hospitalized for three months. I recovered quicker than others in the hospital because I was able to develop a form of self cure. On my return to work at Jiuzhen, I learned that the death toll had soared. By October of 1962, only 21 Tibetans had survived. In that month, we were informed that we would be allowed to return to Tibet.
We were transported to Drapchi, Tibet’s foremost prison in Lhasa. I was placed in a 14-man cell only 16 by 12 feet in dimension. It was so small that when each prisoner slept head to head in two rows, our feet hit the walls forcing us to bend our knees. We were forced to spend every waking hour in study, to confess our faults daily and to inform on our neighbor. It was at this time that mental breakdowns, depression and suicidal behavior appeared amongst fellow prisoners.
By this time, I had spent many years in prison, but no formal charge had been brought against me nor had I received a sentence. It was only in 1972 — nearly 13 years since my arrest — that I finally received my sentence. Although no charges were placed against me, I was considered an “upper class intelligentsia associated with the former Tibetan government” — and was given a 17 year sentence.
Following my sentencing, I was transferred to a less restrictive branch of Sangyib prison, also in Lhasa. My “reeducation” being deemed complete, I was assigned to hard labor in the prison’s quarry. Every day, I was forced to chisel 90 twelve-by-eight-inch stone blocks from boulders blasted out of the mountainside nearby. I could barely perform my share of work.
In the next year, a Chinese prison doctor, who was familiar with my medical knowledge, consulted me on a personal ailment when he learned that I was in Sangyib prison. The Chinese doctor recovered using my treatment and before long, I was removed from my cell and sent to work in Sangyib hospital.
In 1976, having completed my full sentence, I was placed outside of Sangyib prison although still considered “an enemy of the people”. I was able to practice medicine once more and also started receiving a small salary for my work at the hospital.
In the meanwhile, direct contact between the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and the Chinese Government was being established. As a result, the first-ever fact-finding delegation from Dharamsala visited Tibet in 1979. That delegation included Mr. Lobsang Samten, a brother of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He took up my case with the Chinese Government and asked them to permit me to visit India. The process took over a year and it was only in October 1980 that I finally left for India. I reached Dharamsala in November…