A widely revered Tibetan monk, one of China's most prominent political prisoners, has died, 13 years into a jail sentence his supporters say was politically motivated.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's family was informed he died Sunday in a prison near Chengdu in Sichuan province, according to Students for a Free Tibet.
"Chinese authorities are refusing to reveal the circumstances around his death or return his body to the family," said the New York-based group in a statement Monday.
Chinese police also confirmed the death of the 65-year-old monk, according to several media reports, but they provided no other details.
As news of the death spread, protests were reported in Tibet, where angry locals called for the body to be returned so that a proper Buddhist burial can be carried out.
"Thousands of Tibetans in Nyagchu County have gathered outside the local government office, demanding the body so they can carry out funeral rituals," says Free Tibet.
Chinese authorities have rejected the appeals, saying the body will be cremated in prison, according to the Britain-based group. It added that "large numbers of security forces" have been deployed to contain any unrest.
The protests could not be independently confirmed, as China tightly restricts journalists, rights groups, and other communications in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The U.S. State Department, which had repeatedly called for Tenzin Delek's release, on Monday urged Beijing to "investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding his death."
"We urge Chinese authorities to return his body to his family or his monastery so that customary religious rituals can be performed," the State Department release said.
The Tibetan government-in-exile also confirmed the death. Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the India-based Central Tibetan Administration, expressed his "profound sadness" at the news.
"The fact that he was not even allowed medical parole and last wish of followers to see him reflects continuing hard line policies of the Chinese government. Such mistreatment will only generate more resentment among Tibetans," he said.
Tenzin Delek had been denied visitors since November 2013. Last year, authorities also denied a request for medical parole, even as his heart condition and other illnesses were worsening.
The monk was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 on charges related to terrorism and incitement of separatism. The sentence was later reduced to life in prison and then 20 years in prison.
Many Tibetans viewed the charges as punishment for his close links with the Dalai Lama, who had recognized Tenzin Delek as a reincarnated lama.
"Sources in Tibet have maintained that the charges against Tenzin Delek Rinpoche were fabricated and that the real reasons for his arrest were his growing popularity and his steadfast loyalty to His Holiness the Dalai Lama," said the government-in-exile statement.
Tenzin Delek's death "throws a spotlight on the torture and horrific conditions that Tibetan political prisoners face when detained by Chinese authorities," according to Students for a Free Tibet.
The group is now circulating a petition calling for G20 nations to demand an international inquiry into his death. "China cannot continue to sweep rampant abuses under the carpet, and the international community cannot allow this to happen without holding the perpetrators to account," it said.
Tenzin Delek was widely revered for his activism aimed at preserving Tibetan Buddhism and culture, which many Tibetans say has been threatened by government policies that favor the majority Han Chinese ethnic group.
He also established schools, children's homes, retirement homes, and other community buildings in his native region of Kham, according to the Central Tibetan Administration.