Supporters of the prominent Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, who died in prison after 12 years of incarceration, staged a sit-in Wednesday to recover his body, a Tibetan rights group said.
More than 100 protesters sat outside the southwestern Chinese prison where he died, according to Padma Dolma, Europe and campaigns director for the New York-based advocacy group Students for a Free Tibet. Many traveled to the prison in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, from the province's remote Tibetan areas.
Tenzin Delek died while serving a life sentence, Sichuan authorities confirmed over the weekend, without giving further details. He was 65.
Dolma said Tenzin Delek's supporters and family members had spent days attempting to reclaim his body for Buddhist last rites. "I guess today they decided that it's time to add pressure," she said. "It seems that the negotiations weren't going anywhere."
Photographs collected by the organization showed several Tibetans sitting cross-legged on a leafy city street, flanked by police holding riot shields. Chengdu authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.
Police dispersed the crowd in the evening, Dolma said, adding that many protesters plan to return to the site Thursday morning. No arrests have been reported.
"With one of the highest-level Tibetan political prisoners having died in police custody, it's a deadly situation at the moment," Dolma said.
Chinese authorities sentenced Tenzin Delek, a highly respected monk with ties to the Dalai Lama, to death for "crimes of terror and incitement of separatism" in 2002, alleging that he was involved in a bombing at a public park. In 2005, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Beijing regards the Dalai Lama as a Tibetan separatist, although the Buddhist leader has repeatedly said that he seeks only greater autonomy for the Himalayan region.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed "deepest condolences" over the monk's death in a statement Monday.
"The United States had consistently urged China to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, most recently out of concern for his health," he said. "We hope Chinese authorities will investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding his death."
Authorities plan to cremate the body within the prison, Geshe Nyima, a cousin of Tenzin Delek's who lives in Dharamsala, India, said in a statement Tuesday.
"I fear for the safety of my family and friends who have traveled from our hometown to the prison in order to demand the authorities to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche's body," he said. "It is our right that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, our teacher and leader, receives the final Tibetan Buddhist rites."