Washington: Hollywood star Richard Gere expressed outrage Tuesday over the death in a Chinese prison of a key Tibetan dissident, as the US Congress explored ways to ratchet up pressure on Beijing over Tibet.
Testifying before the House of Representatives human rights commission, Gere remembered Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as one of Tibetan Buddhism`s most respected and revered lamas.
"The worst possible outcome has arrived -- Rinpoche has died in prison," said Gere, a longtime champion of human rights in Tibet, in written testimony.
"The death of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche is a tragic reminder of the injustices endured by Tibetans for exercising their right to religious freedom, and of the grim state of human rights in Tibet," he said.
Rinpoche`s death at the age of 65 was disclosed Monday by the Students for a Free Tibet human rights group and the Tibetan government in exile.
He had been convicted in 2002 on charges of separatism and being involved in a bombing in a public square, and was initially condemned to death.
His sentence -- after a trial that observers described as flawed -- was later commuted to life in prison, and then to 20 years behind bars.
Gere, chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, remembered Rinpoche in a humanitarian light, holding up what he called a "beautiful photograph" of an orphanage that the lama had established.
He joined other witnesses at Tuesday`s hearing in condemning Beijing`s failure to turn over Rinpoche`s remains to his family for proper burial.
Members of Congress are pondering new ways for Washington to effectively sway Beijing on human rights issues, ahead of a visit to the United States in September by China`s top leader Xi Jinping.
"In spite of all that has been done in the past, things are not changing. In fact they are getting worse," said James McGovern, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts who co-chairs the commission.
He suggested Congress send a bipartisan delegation to Tibet ahead of Xi`s visit, as a test of China`s willingness to show foreigners the Himalayan region and engage on the human rights question.
Speaking to reporters, Gere said it was in China`s interest to embark on a "middle path" and open talks with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.
"The Tibetans themselves are telling (China) what to do: `Allow us to have our culture, our religion, to move freely`," he said.
If Tibetans enjoyed such freedoms, it would be "irrelevant" if they remained a part of China or not, given how economically interconnected the two would remain, he said.
"This is about cultural survival, the survival of a people who are on the edge of extinction because of failed Chinese policies in Tibet," Gere added.