Verifying footage of a Tibetan Prison with geolocation and OSINT

This article explains how the Tibet Research Project was able to verify footage and imagery of a prison in Tibet and clarify a mixture of information online. This location is an interesting one because it is relatively well-documented, however, the information was spread across many sources and some claims were not easily verified until the data was consolidated.

Drapchi Prison — Overview

Coordinates: 29.67917605, 91.13947266
Perimeter: 1,313.66 m
Area: 73.464.89 m2

Officially known as Tibet Autonomous Region Prison (TAR Prison) number 1, Drapchi is named after its location and was originally a military garrison until it was converted into a prison after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising.

It is roughly one mile from the city centre and is the main prison for judicially sentenced prisoners in Tibet. It was the primary place for the detention of political prisoners before 2005 when the newer and modernised Chushur (Chinese: Qushui) Prison was built.

It also possibly goes by the name Delapuxie prison, which has been listed as a separate prison online. TCHRD was able to confirm that they are the same location after our researchers contacted them.

Drapchi Prison used to be the only official prison in Tibet but, following the 1994 law change, former laogais were rebranded, and locations such as Powo Tramo were also referred to as prisons.

This close-up view from Google Earth shows a large number of people in the secure yards

The prison is notorious for the deaths of at least nine prisoners following beatings in 1998, who protested peacefully on the 1st and 4th May, during the European Union Troika ambassadors’ visit. The previous year also saw the beatings and extension of sentences for three prisoners who protested during a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visit. On October 30th, 1997, it was reported that Drapchi Prison had 968 inmates, including around 200 women, with 726 (75%) of them being ethnic Tibetans.

Open source research found a Chinese forum that claimed that this prison is the only women’s prison in Tibet. This matches information from Human Rights Watch (HRW), which suggests it may be the only official location for women prisoners in Tibet, though this information is dated. Additional analysis of a documentary featuring the prison showed that women were indeed detained at this facility.

That said, there is ample evidence that Drapchi is not solely a women’s prison. Footage and images of male prisoners have also been identified.

Consolidating Open Source Information

The first stage of investigating Drapchi was obtaining all sources which held information on the prison, including location and defining features. This information was key for several reasons. Firstly, Tibetan rights groups will often name locations based on their traditional Tibetan name, rather than the names used by Chinese officials.

This is in direct opposition to the occupation of the region — Tibetan groups regard using Chinese names as legitimising China’s claim.

To obtain a full overview, it is important to assess sources from all sides, which includes searching with both names. In this case, we searched for “Drapchi Prison” and the official Chinese designation, “Tibet Autonomous Region Prison (TAR Prison) number 1”.

Searching online is normally the best way to get an overview of the subject and allows you to find a lot of information to get started.

Many of the details were from web sources that were not deemed trustworthy, however, it is likely that some of the information would be useful when verified.

Sorting Misinformation

Due to the topic being sparsely researched, several points of conflicting information arose from various sources.

This included claims that certain images were of Drapchi yet were actually at different locations.

When processing the data you have obtained in the collection stage, it is important to scrutinise details and legitimacy. Had this stage not occurred, information about the location would have been littered with incorrect info.

One of the sources being used was displaying images claiming to be of Drapchi. This was debunked due to the geolocation process which revealed the images were of a nearby prison that had been previously identified.

Alleged Baidu Street View image of Drapchi Prison, taken in 2018. It should be noted that the watchtowers seen here are square rather than circular, which conflicts with our obtained satellite images. The image more closely resembles the hill and watchtowers of Utritru prison on the northern border and the road facing the hill [29.68712039,91.15835124]. One flat-roofed watchtower has red-lining close to a pointed roofed one, with another pointed roof further away. Note the wall seen here is not the perimeter wall but the road wall. The perimeter wall is concealed behind the wall in view.
Location of watchtowers (29.68729605,91.15702689 ) from a removed Baidu Street view image listed as Drapchi Prison; however, analysis demonstrates it is another prison known as Utritru. Note the flat-topped watchtower and two pointed red-topped watchtowers behind it, which seem to be slightly further away from the road wall.

Video Analysis

One of the best sources of location information is video footage. This can be used to great effect due to normal filming procedures such as panning.

Panning a camera not only offers a frame-by-frame overview of the location, it can also be stitched together to form a panorama.

Seen here is two frames from the video below, captured several seconds apart as a result of camera panning. By extracting and combining video frames, you can obtain a much better picture of the area.

A video titled “Tibet Prison 西藏监狱” premiered on YouTube on December 10th 2019, and was allegedly a Chinese documentary on Drapchi Prison.

It was uploaded by VideoChinaTV and is a 56-minute overview of the prison. Analysis of the video became a priority as it offered a unique insight into the detention in Tibet.

The documentary was deemed a heavily biased source. Information obtained was limited to structural identification of the prison and verification of the location rather than the analysis of inmates’ well-being.

This was conducted using video editing software to extract important frames that showed the prison structures or easily identifiable features which could be cross-referenced with satellite imagery and online images.

All the frames that were analysed are available on the Tibet Research Project’s website. The findings confirmed the footage showed Drapchi Prison before the RTL system was abolished as some of the footage was as old as 2004, based on the chronolocation demonstrated below.

This image shows the verification of a frame from the YouTube video “Tibet Prison”. The satellite imagery seen here was the latest imagery available and had a few differences. Most notably, the watchtower in the background is absent. The watchtower this footage was taken from was positioned too far to the right for the angle to be correct. Several clues were critical to the analysis of this image. The presence of a flag and buildings in the background was crucial for picking the correct yard. Shadows in the satellite imagery confirm that the flagpole matches the selected location. The greenery in the left section has been changed between the dates imaging.
Image A shows the old watchtower from where the above footage was shot, image B shows the removal of the tower and perimeter wall (November 2018), and image C shows the new watchtower (visible from January 2019). The camera shot angle means that the footage must have been taken from the older watchtower, which means that the video is older than November 2018.
The earliest imagery after which the watchtower was removed is shown in image 3. Image 1 shows the watchtower present in the frame from the video. The presence of a watchtower (image 2) in the background proves that the footage was taken before November 2011, the earliest date where the watchtower is no longer visible.

One of the most significant indicators that the documentary used older footage was an image in an article that appeared to match one of the shots.

The image depicts a prison band rehearsing in a room. Analysis suggests that some of the footage could be as old as 2004 or even earlier.

The room layout is the same, and the semi-open cardboard box on the wooden locked box matches. It is worth noting that the window sill appears to have been tidied slightly for the photograph in the article.

Recent change analysis

Using Sentinel Hub’s EO Browser, it was possible to monitor for any changes in the past five years to check for expansion or demolishing. From the resolution available, it appears little has changed other than the open ground in the top right of the prison.

Sentinel satellite data showed little changes to the location since 2017.

Looking back further, using Google Earth Pro’s timelapse feature shows there was a significant change to the prison in 2014. Here you can see the vegetable gardens being removed over time. In the first image, they appear in long greenhouses, which match those seen in the documentary.

These greenhouses have since been removed permanently and have not shown up in imagery since.

This could indicate a change to the operation of the prison or changes to policies. Many Chinese prisons are known to have needed to grow their own food to supplement poor financial backing from the government.

At the end of 2013, the Re-education-Through-Labour (RTL) programme of prisons was supposedly abolished. While there is some latency to the removal of the greenhouses, this may be a direct result of that policy change.

If it is, it could suggest that Drapchi has conformed to the changes made nationwide to abolish RTL. The evidence is not strong enough to be conclusive, however — nor does it vindicate the location of other human rights issues.

As confirmation that the prison is still in use, a high-resolution satellite image can be used to identify people in the detention areas. The latest imagery from Google Earth in 2021 shows what appears to be prisoners still confined to this prison so we can conclude that it is still active as of the image date.

Image dated 14th January 2021 shows possible people in the yards. The resolution is not good enough to identify who these people are. That said, the orderly formation in one yard and the disorderly formation in the other suggests it could be prisoners on roll call and milling about.

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