Forensic image of Tibetan leader held in Chinese captivity to be unveiled on BBC’s ‘The One Show’

Forensic image of Tibetan leader held in Chinese captivity to be unveiled on BBC’s ‘The One Show’

Free Tibet

A new, forensically constructed image showing what Tibet’s missing Panchen Lama could look like twenty-four years after his abduction by the Chinese government will be unveiled on BBC’s The One Show. The short film will be broadcast in the United Kingdom at 7pm on 24 April.

The Panchen Lama, birth name Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was born on 25 April 1989. On 14 May 1995, shortly after his sixth birthday, he was publicly recognised by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama, the second most revered religious leader in Tibetan Buddhism.

Three days later, on 17 May 1995, he was abducted along with the rest of his family, becoming the world’s youngest political prisoner. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has been missing ever since, and despite repeated requests from Tibetans and Tibet campaign groups, human rights organisations, governments and United Nations human rights agencies, the Chinese government has repeatedly refused to provide any credible information about his location or his well-being. (1)

For 24 years Tibetans have continued to seek information about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. In the run up to his thirtieth birthday, International Tibet Network, (2) worked with National Crime Agency listed forensic artist Tim Widden to create a reconstruction of how Gedhun Choekyi Nyima might look today.

Tim Widden specialises in age progressions and facial reconstructions for missing and unidentified people and used techniques similar to those used  in any criminal or missing persons case to create the image of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima using a facial growth model. (3)

Tim had only one original image of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima to work with – a photograph of the 11th Panchen Lama as a six year old. Using this image, Tim researched the changes that would be observed in Tibetan people’s faces as they aged, focusing specifically on Gedhun Choekyi Nyima’s native region of Tibet, Lhari County (4).

“No age progression is going to be a hundred percent accurate… however in terms of the proportions of the face, I’d expect there to be a good level of congruence between the age progression and what he looked like now,” Widden said.

“My role in this isn’t in any way political. It’s simply regarding a missing individual that I felt deserved to have an age progression. I believe everyone missing deserves to have a regular age progression to keep their case alive in the eyes of the world,” he added.

Lobsang Yangtso, Asia Regional Coordinator for International Tibet Network said:

“The significance of this new image is hard to overstate. It sends a message to Beijing that the world has not forgotten about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, despite all of their efforts to erase him from our history. This image is an important document of how our Panchen Lama may look at aged 30 after we have not seen him for 24 years. It also allows Tibetans to continue to hope that he will one day be free again.”

One of the traditional, historic duties of the Panchen Lama is to take an active role in identifying the successor to the Dalai Lama. Beijing has made it clear that it aims to take control of the succession of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama as part of a wider set of controls over Tibetan Buddhism. (5)  In late March 2019, the Chinese government stated once again that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama “must comply with Chinese laws and regulations”. (6) The following week, Beijing’s State Council’s Information Office released a white paper on Tibet, stating that measures taken by Beijing over the past 12 years to give the Communist Party, rather than Tibetan Buddhists, authority on matters of reincarnation were “proceeding well”. (7)

Beijing has named its own Panchen Lama in place of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, promoting a Tibetan boy called Gyaltsen Norbu, the son of two Chinese Communist Party members, as the real Panchen Lama. (8) Gyaltsen Norbu was raised and educated in Beijing and is not widely recognised among Tibetan Buddhists.

John Jones, Campaigns and Advocacy Manager for Free Tibet, said:

“The reaction by Tibetans to the unveiling of this new image has been overwhelmingly positive, and is a reminder that Tibetans are committed to finding out what happened to the Panchen Lama. After nearly a quarter of century of evasion and political games from Beijing, Tibetans are owed answers about the location and the safety of the Panchen Lama. As for Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, he is owed nothing less than his freedom.”

The One Show broadcast on 24 April will take place one day before the Panchen Lama turns 30. It will publicly show the facial reconstruction, for the first time. It will also feature an interview with Tim Widden and will show the picture being unveiled to members of the Tibetan community in London.

On 25 April, a special broadcast of the segment will take place at the exiled Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in India (9), the traditional seat of successive Panchen Lama’s. The monastery has been vocal in pushing for information on the missing Panchen Lama (10). The broadcast is expected to be viewed by some 400 monks.

For further information or comment, contact:

John Jones, Free Tibet, + 44 (0)7770681938,

Mandie McKeown, International Tibet Network, +44 (0)7748 158 618,

Lobsang Yangsto, International Tibet Network, +91 88265 07768,

Notes to editors

  2. International Tibet Network is a coalition of more than 170 Tibet organisations, campaigning for an end to human rights violations in Tibet and restoring rights to the Tibetan people.:
  3. Further details on Tim Widden’s work can be found on his website:
  4. Lhari County is located within Nagchu Prefecture, U’Tsang (Chinese: Nagqu, Tibet Autonomous Region)