(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release Tibetans who have been detained by local police and are being forced to undergo political re-education after travelling to India to listen to religious teachings there, Human Rights Watch said .

Many have been detained since February 6, 2012, in ad hoc detention centers in Lhasa and other areas. Multiple sources told Human Rights Watch that several hundred Tibetans may have been detained in the current sweep, but the exact number is not known. The same sources described the political re-education the detainees are subjected to. No information is available about how long the detainees will be held, but people with knowledge of the detentions in Lhasa say the detentions are expected to last from 20 days to three months.

“Arbitrarily detaining people and forcing them to undergo political indoctrination is an abuse of Chinese and international laws,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities in the region should release these individuals, as their detention only escalates the tension in Tibetan regions which already have increased limits on travel and communication as well as troop and security presence.”

This is the first known instance since the late 1970s in which the Chinese authorities have detained laypeople in Tibet in large numbers to force them to undergo re-education, Human Rights Watch said. The sweep is in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), where there has been almost no unrest in four years. It is 600 miles west of the eastern Tibetan areas in Sichuan and other provinces where there have been at least eight self-immolations and five deaths of protesters so far this year. The mass detentions in the Autonomous Region indicate that the crackdown in eastern Tibetan areas has expanded to the entire Tibetan plateau, and that it involves techniques not used in the region for several decades.

The detained Tibetans had returned to Lhasa or other Tibetan areas from religious teachings given by the Dalai Lama in Bihar, India, from December 31, 2011, to January 10. The Chinese authorities allowed approximately 7,000 Tibetans to travel to Nepal or India during this period in what appeared to be a sign of relaxation. However, that changed against a backdrop of unrest in the eastern Tibetan areas and apparent fears it might spread to Lhasa.

The Beijing-based paper The Global Times reported on February 10 the authorities appeared to be tightening restrictions, and ordered officials to ready themselves for “a war against secessionist sabotage” because “secessionists led by the Dalai Lama appeared more determined to plot conspiracies this year.”

Tibetans caught returning from Nepal or India without legal travel documents usually face severe consequences. They are typically detained for three to six months, then sentenced to up to two years in prison if convicted of illegal border-crossing. However, the detention of travelers with valid travel documents who are not suspected of any criminal offense is rare, if not unprecedented.

In the recent cases known to Human Rights Watch, though, the detained returnees traveled in and out of China on valid Chinese passports and had entry visas for Nepal. A number of them also traveled directly to India using visas issued by India, indicating that on this occasion the Chinese authorities had not placed restrictions on travel to India in Tibetans’ passports, as in the past. There is no known regulation banning Tibetans from attending the teachings, and the returnees undergoing re-education have not been accused of any crime, such as carrying illicit documents or crossing the Chinese border without permission.

There are no reports so far that any of the estimated 700 ethnic Chinese from China who attended the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Bihar have been detained on their return to China, suggesting that the detainees are being selected because of their ethnicity. The detention of the returnees from India are in addition to the routine detention of Tibetans from other parts of China who lack residence papers for the Autonomous Region and who are suspected of having links to exile groups.

Those detained on this occasion appear to have been identified from re-entry data obtained from them on their return into Tibet during checks at border posts or airports. Those returning from India by road via Nepal said that they encountered at least 11 checkpoints between the Nepal border and Lhasa, compared with the usual two or three, and that they were searched thoroughly at each one. Those returning by air had to go through multiple searches on arrival at Gonkar airport outside Lhasa, a process that lasted from four to six hours, according to Human Rights Watch sources.

There are also unconfirmed reports that if returnees were found during these searches to be carrying religious or other items associated with the Dalai Lama, the items were confiscated and the travelers may have been detained.

Although various buildings apparently are being used as ad hoc detention centers, Human Rights Watch sources say that in many cases relatives have not been given any official notification of the detentions and do not know where the detainees are being held. In other cases in Lhasa, a hotel, an army training centre, a paramilitary “Border Defense Unit” base in the western suburbs, and a “vagrancy center” in Tsalgunthang, about eight miles to the east of the city, have been identified as places detainees are being held. The “vagrancy center” ordinarily only holds homeless people and people without residency permits. Some detainees staying in hotels have reportedly been told that they must pay for their stay there.

Returnees who were detained in Lhasa but were officially registered as residents of another area were forcibly removed to those areas and placed in detention centers there, even if they had not lived there for decades, the sources said. In one case known to Human Rights Watch, a woman who had lived in Lhasa for more than 20 years was sent to her registered home approximately 200 miles away from the capital for detention and re-education.

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