WASHINGTON - Members of the U.S. Congress have expressed outrage over the death of a prominent Tibetan dissident in a Chinese prison, and urged Beijing to stop abusive policies in Tibet.
Lawmakers observed a moment of silence for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as they started a hearing Tuesday.
Congressman James McGovern (D-MA) who chaired the hearing said he had asked the State Department to press the Chinese government to grant Tenzin Delek medical parole back in April. “Yet here we are, with another Tibetan leader dead,” he said.
Hollywood movie actor Richard Gere, a longstanding vocal advocate on Tibetan freedom, said Tenzin Delek’s death is a "stark reminder of who we are dealing with here."
WATCH: Actor Richard Gere testifies at Congressional hearing, later talks to VOA
Testifying before the Congressional hearing, Gere said what the Chinese government was afraid of is the power base Tenzin Delek was building.
“He had tens of thousands of students, Tibetan and Chinese, and I think basically that was the problem," Gere said.
Tenzin Delek’s family was informed by the local authorities of his death on Sunday, according to the Students for a Free Tibet, a New York based human rights group. He was 13 years into a prison sentence his supporters say was politically motivated.
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."
A widely revered Tibetan monk, and one of China's most prominent political prisoners, Tenzin Delek was convicted in 2002 on charges related to terrorism and incitement of separatism. He was accused of being involved in a bombing in a public square in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in 2002. He was initially sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to 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.
Congressman McGovern said Tibetan people have the rights to exercise religious freedom and protect their culture. “The situation in Tibet is dire,” he said, “we may be running out of time to guarantee those rights.”
“His holiness the Dalai Lama has been in exile for 56 years, as we celebrate his 80th birthday, the Chinese government has recently asserted its right to approve his successor,” he said.
China's Tibet Policy Criticized
Congresswoman Zoe Lonfgren (D-CA) compared China’s policies in Tibet to genocide.
“The word ‘genocide’ is used for mass murder, murdering of the Jews in World War II, something other than slaughter, because genocide is to destroy a people,” she said. And “that is what the Chinese is attempting to do to the Tibetans,” Congresswoman Lonfgren said.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urged the U.S. and the Western world not to look the other way.
“We would lose all moral authority to discuss human rights any place in the world if we shrink from challenging China on its treatment of the people of China and of Tibet,” she said.
Congressman McGovern said he is “frustrated” and “angry” over the lack of progress in the human rights situation in Tibet.
He said the U.S. policy is not making China change its behavior in Tibet.
“The talks between China and Tibet ceased in 2010; it is 2015, and I don’t think there have been any consequences to the Chinese government for walking away from the talks,” Congressman McGovern said.
McGovern said Congress should try to send a bipartisan delegation to visit Tibet before Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. in September.
However, China has repeatedly criticized the U.S. Congress for “interfering China’s internal affairs.”