Chinese authorities have cremated the body of an influential Tibetan monk who died in prison last Sunday, amid calls from human rights groups to return his body to his family.

Tenzin Delek Rinpoche was charged with “crimes of terror and incitement of separatism” in 2002 and was imprisoned near the Sichuan-Tibet border in Dazhu County. He died on July 12 at the age of 65. The cause of his death is unknown.

Tenzin Delek’s body was cremated in Dazhou, Sichuan Province on Thursday morning, despite family members’ pleas for his body to be released so that Buddhist rites could be performed in his hometown.

Tenzin Delek’s sister Dolka, who was present when her brother’s body was cremated, said government officials denied her request for her brother’s body to be preserved for 15 days in accordance with Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

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Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. Photo: Voice of America.

The news comes after influential NGO Human Rights Watch urged Chinese authorities to return Tenin Delek’s body to his family. The NGO’s China director Sophie Richardson said: “To have detained Tenzin Delek for peaceful activism, to have denied him adequate medical treatment, and to let him die in detention – this is the epitome of cruel and inhumane behaviour.”

“Central government authorities should move swiftly to ensure his remains are returned to his family or community, and immediately allow an independent investigation into his death,” she added.

Tenzin Delek was sentenced to death a few months after his 2002 arrest for involvement in a bombing that injured three people in a Chengdu park. The death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2005. It was later reduced once again to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Human rights groups say the charges were false and Tenzin Delek continued to maintain his innocence whilst he was in prison.

News of Tenzin Delek’s death prompted outrage from Free Tibet activists in the US and prompted calls for China to hold talks with the Dalai Lama.

A spokesperson for the US State Department, John Kirby, said: “The United States had consistently urged China to release Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, most recently out of concern for his health. We hope Chinese authorities will investigate and make public the circumstances surrounding his death.”

“We urge Chinese authorities to return his body to his family or to his monastery so that customary religious rituals can be properly performed.”

The New York-based Students for a Free Tibet said protesters staged a sit-in outside the prison where Tenzin Delek was held shortly after it was reported that the Chinese authorities had not released his body.

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Tenzin Delek was born in the Tibetan area of Sichuan in 1950 and lived in India from 1982 to 1987. During that time, he studied under the Dalai Lama, who recognised him as a tulku, or a reincarnated lama. He became prominent in China after he returned to the country in 1987 to establish monasteries, health clinics , schools and orphanages.

Last year activists urged the Chinese authorities to grant Tenzin Delek medical parole on the grounds that he had suffered from a heart condition, high blood pressure, dizzy spells and problems with his legs.

On Wednesday July 15, Human Rights Watch released a report that found the Chinese government’s passport policy was restricting Tibetans, Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities from leaving the country and called on the government to end the practice.

Vicky is a British-born Chinese journalist with three years of experience covering UK politics. She previously worked for PoliticsHome and has interned at Sky News and CNN International. She also co-produced and filmed a documentary about the Hong Kong protests for MSNBC, which won the grand student prize at the 2015 Human Rights Press Awards. She has a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading and moved to Hong Kong in 2014 to complete a journalism masters at the University of Hong Kong.