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WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers held a moment of silence Tuesday and expressed anger and sadness over the death in prison of a prominent Tibetan monk, and lamented that U.S. criticism of China's conduct is failing to stop repression of the minority group.
House members called for a tougher U.S. policy to pressure China at a hearing on Tibet by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. They also demanded Chinese authorities return the body of Tibetan lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche to his family members for a funeral.
Movie actor Richard Gere, a longstanding advocate for Tibetan freedom, said the 65-year old monk's death in Chinese government custody, 13 years into a sentence for alleged involvement in a bombing, was a "stark reminder of who we are dealing with here."
"This was one of the good men of the community. He had tens of thousands of students, Tibetan and Chinese, and I think basically that was the problem," Gere told the hearing.
"This was someone who was bridging cultures, someone who was creating something extraordinary, finding commonality between Tibetans and Chinese. I think that is probably how he crossed the line with the Chinese government."
Audience members, including a Buddhist monk in saffron robes who studied with Tenzin Delek, held up photos of the lama, who had maintained his innocence of involvement in the 2002 bombing in a public park in Chengdu city that injured three people. Human rights activists say the charges of terrorism and incitement of separatism on which he was convicted were false.
Tenzin Delek was being held in Sichuan province, which borders the Tibetan region. He was denied medical parole last year. Relatives were informed of his death on Sunday but were not told how he died, the New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said.
Sarah Sewall, the State Department's special coordinator for Tibetan issues, said she shared the lawmakers' "anger and sadness" over Tenzin Delek's death but did not indicate any toughening in U.S. policy toward China on Tibet.
The U.S. is supportive of the call by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for greater Tibetan autonomy. China rejects the Dalai Lama's stance as a covert bid for independence and vilifies him. Since 2009, at least 140 Tibetans within China are known to have self-immolated, to protest Chinese policies or to call for the return of the Dalai Lama who has lived in exile in India since 1959.
Sewall said the "horrific self-immolations" of Tibetans in recent years were an expression of their desperation over their situation.
Democratic commission co-chair, Rep. Jim McGovern, said he was "outraged" by the Chinese government's treatment of the Tibetan people. His Republican counterpart, Rep. Joe Pitts, said more than 639 Tibetans are held as political prisoners. He accused China of "pervasive meddling in religious affairs" and curbs on freedom of movement and expression.
Lawmakers complained there have been no consequences for Beijing's conduct in Tibet and abandoning talks with the Dalai Lama that the U.S. views as the best chance of easing tensions in Tibet. They called for possible restrictions on the movements of Chinese officials in U.S. to reciprocate for restrictions on American diplomats traveling to Tibet.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, noted that Tenzin Delek had been sentenced on charges of alleged terrorism, and called for the U.S. to cancel an upcoming counter-terrorism dialogue with China.