China/Tibet Autonomous Region
Kunchok Tsephel served four years of his 15-year sentence in Dingxi prison, Lanzhu, Gansu Province, before being transferred in August 2013 to a new prison nearby where conditions are harsher and there are serious concerns for his health.
Kunchok’s family is allowed to visit him once every two months, and they report being only permitted to speak to him in Chinese via intercom behind a glass screen. The intercom is computer operated and switches off after the allocated 30 minutes. They are not allowed to speak in Tibetan, which is extremely difficult and disconcerting for many of his nomadic family members who do not understand Chinese. His mother in particular is said to be extremely distressed about the fact that she is unable to communicate with him during prison visits.
Kunchok Tsephel, born in 1970, is a prominent Internet writer and co-founder and editor of the Tibetan-language website Chomei (Butter Lamp), which promotes Tibetan culture and literature. The website, created by Kunchok Tsephel and leading Tibetan poet Kyabchen Dedrol in 2005, features both classical and contemporary Tibetan writing, and was the first ever Tibetan literary website. At the time of his arrest Kunchok Tsephel was working as an environmental officer for the Chinese government.
Kunchok’s self-funded website, founded in 2005, is a joint venture with the poet Kyabchen Dedrol and has been closed or censored on various occasions by Chinese authorities. Like other Tibetans, Kunchok Tsephel lived in exile in India in 1989 before returning to China for further studies. In 1995, according to the Tibetan website Phayul, he was allegedly detained and tortured for two months before being released without charge.
On February 26, 2009, Kunchok Tsephel was arrested by Chinese security officials at his home in the town of Nyul-ra, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. At the time of his arrest, his house was searched and his computer confiscated. He was held incommunicado at an undisclosed location until November 12, 2009, when the Intermediate People’s Court of Kanlho sentenced him to 15 years in prison for “disclosing state secrets” in a closed hearing. As a result of the political sensitivity, lack of due process, and general obscurity surrounding cases concerning “state secrets,” the precise reason for his arrest and the harsh sentence against him is still not known. His family was not told of his whereabouts until they were summoned to court to hear the verdict, and no lawyer has been willing to provide him with legal assistance to appeal. Kunchok Tsephel’s case remains shrouded in secrecy, and his sentence is not due to expire until 2024.