The head of a rights group with close ties to the Chinese government has requested the authorities to release two prominent Tibetan political prisoners, one due to urgent health concerns, during his most recent visit to Beijing.
John Kamm, founder and chairman of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua (in English, Dialogue) said he has “hope” that Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and Lobsang Tenzin would be set free. Lobsang Tenzin—one of Tibet’s longest serving political prisoners—is suffering from acute diabetes.
“On my most recent trip I raised [the release of] Lobsang Tenzin, of course, and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche,” Kamm said in an interview on Thursday outside a congressional hearing in Washington.
Lobsang Tenzin, about 50 years old, was arrested in March of 1988 after partaking in student protests and convicted in connection with the death of a policeman. He is currently scheduled for release in 2013.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, 61, was convicted of involvement in a series of bombings in the Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan region of Sichuan province and sentenced to death in 2002. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment two years later.
“By constantly pointing out to the Chinese government that they haven’t released anyone … we have some hope of at least a few getting out early,” Kamm said.
“And I’d like to take this opportunity to express my strong hope that among those who are released early would be Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and, of course, Lobsang Tenzin. He, I guess, is among the longest-serving prisoners … and he has very bad diabetes … so I am appealing to the Chinese government to release him on medical parole.”
No known releases
Kamm said that there have been no known early releases or sentence reductions for Tibetan political prisoners convicted of “subversion,” “splittism” or “incitement”—charges commonly leveled against dissidents in China—for “many years.”
“The last one was a Han Chinese … in September 2009 who is going to be released next month—that’s the last known sentence reduction of any prisoner convicted of ‘subversion,’ ‘splittism’ or ‘incitement’ … I can’t remember a time when my own work has been so difficult,” he said.
“I’ve had a little success with Han political prisoners convicted of ‘espionage’ and ‘state secrets’ more than for ‘subversion,’ ‘splittism’ or ‘incitement.’ That, to me, is quite striking—that people convicted of ‘espionage’ are shown more clemency than people who simply speak out.”
Kamm said that rights groups have had less success recently likely due to a number of changing factors, including an imminent change in Chinese leadership and an increasing amount of social unrest in the country.
“First of all, of course, there is this leadership transition about to take place in China and from all appearances the group coming in is going to be at least as hard as the present group. So if you’re trying to get a political position in the Chinese government, it doesn’t do you any good to appear to be soft on dissent,” he said.
China’s Communist Party is gearing up for a power succession one year from now, when new leadership will be chosen following the resignation of President Hu Jintao as Party general secretary.
President Hu, his premier Wen Jiabao and the powerful Standing Committee are expected to relinquish all remaining leadership posts in 2013, with vice-president Xi Jinping widely tipped as Hu's successor.
“Secondly, according to an unofficial estimate by a Chinese scholar, there were 180,000 mass incidents in China last year. So the government truly is nervous,” Kamm said.
Many of these are incidents are protests or sit-ins linked to forced evictions, allegations of official wrongdoing, and disputes over rural land sales.
Lastly, Kamm said the lingering global economic crisis had dried up funding for many China-focused nongovernmental organizations, leaving them less effective in their work.
But he vowed to keep working with the Chinese government to secure the release of jailed dissidents around the country.
“Precisely because none have been released, we have hope that some will—if you can think in those terms.”
Reported by Rigdhen Dolma for RFA’s Tibetan service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.