Tibetan Activist Freed in Critical Condition After 25 Years in Prison

2013-05-02
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Chinese paramilitary police in the streets of Tibetan-populated Ngaba county in Sichuan province after a self-immolation protest, Oct. 17, 2011.
AFP

Chinese authorities in Tibet have released one of the region’s longest-serving political prisoners and sent him home in critical condition following a quarter century of torture and abuse in prison, according to Tibetan sources.

Lobsang Tenzin, who was serving a 25-year term, was released in June 2012, former prison cellmate Penpa Tsemonling told RFA’s Tibetan Service on Thursday, speaking from New York and citing several sources in the region.

News of Tenzin’s release, which sources said came just months before his 25-year sentence was due to expire in April 2013, was apparently withheld by persons close to him to prevent unwanted publicity that might result in his being returned to jail.

“The release was purposely kept secret and I did not tell anybody,” Tsemonling said, adding, “Now, more details are coming out about his release, so I am speaking out to the media.”

Tenzin was likely released because his health conditions had badly deteriorated, Tsemonling said.

“The Chinese have done that many times,” he said. “But prisoners can be put back in jail if their condition improves.”

The Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet’s India-based government in exile, confirmed in a May 1 statement that Lobsang Tenzin "has been sent back to his home,” quoting a “reliable source.”

“Because he had been tortured over a long period in prison, his health has badly deteriorated. And because he suffers from kidney damage and diabetes, he is now almost blind.  He has been undergoing medical treatment at home since the end of last year,” the CTA said.

Active in protests

Tenzin had been jailed for his role in anti-China protests in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 1988.

He was one of five Tibetans charged in the death of a Chinese police officer who was beaten and thrown from a window after being detected photographing protest participants.

Tenzin’s role in the killing was never clearly established, with one long-time Tibet expert describing the trial in a September 2011 interview as “completely unfair.”

Frequently tortured and beaten during his years in prison, Tenzin was at first sentenced to death following his conviction. The sentence was later commuted to a life term following “strong international pressure on China,” the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said in an earlier report.

Tenzin remained politically active while incarcerated, organizing a protest in Lhasa’s notorious Drapchi prison and founding a group called Snow Lion Youth for Independence.

In 1991, Tenzin and another prisoner attempted to pass a list containing the names of Tibetan political prisoners to then-U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley, who was visiting Tibet. The attempt led to further beatings and a term in solitary confinement.

'Committed to his cause'


“Lobsang Tenzin is a person who has no vices, only virtues,” Penpa Tsemonling said. “He is a man committed to his cause.”

Tsemonling said the two had been in prison together for three years.

“I was first jailed in Drapchi, where we shared a cell together. From Drapchi we were transferred  to Powo Tramo prison in Kongpo, and we were together there until I was released.”

Tsemonling said that a high-ranking Chinese judicial official once visited Tenzin in prison and asked him if he was not afraid that he would die if he continued his activism.

“'There is no one who does not fear death,'” Tenzin replied, according to Tsemonling.

“'But if I die for my country and my people, I will have no regrets … So do whatever you want to do with my life,'” Tenzin said.

Others released

Tibetan dissident Tanak Jigme Zangpo, who was released in 2002 after 32 years in prison, holds the record of being the longest serving Tibetan political prisoner.

Two other long-serving Tibetan prisoners were freed in March.

Activist Jigme Gyatso, 52, was freed after serving 17 years in prison with hard labor for seeking independence for Tibet and calling for the long life of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Another activist, Dawa Gyaltsen, a former bank accountant and believed to be about 47, was released after 17 years with a limp in one of his legs having worsened due to ill-treatment and torture in prison.

Reported by Yangdon Demo and  Nyima Namseling for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Benpa Topgyal and Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.