Pushing for justice for Tibet's hidden prisoners

A still from the New York Times documentary: Tashi travelling to Beijing
A still from the New York Times documentary: Tashi travelling to Beijing
A still from the New York Times documentary: Tashi travelling to Beijing
10th August 2018

10 August is International Prison Justice Day, a day to think of Tashi Wangchuk and Tibet's other political prisoners

On 27 January 2016 Tashi Wangchuk disappeared. Like so many Tibetans before and since, he simply vanished without trace – his distraught family were left to ponder his fate.

Nearly two months later it was revealed that he had in fact been detained by Chinese security services. He would remain in detention for over two years, despite no evidence of him having committed a crime. In the background, the wheels of ‘justice’ turned slowly, sometimes barely turning at all, as more and more time passed without sign of a trial. All the while, his friends and family were left to wonder about his condition, no doubt aware of the often dire conditions in Tibet’s detention facilities.    

We now know that in those early days in detention, Tashi Wangchuk was tortured, repeatedly interrogated, and even told that his family would be harmed. That was only the beginning of the injustice. Today the 33-year-old shopkeeper and language campaigner is in prison, serving a five-year sentence after being found guilty in May of this year of “inciting separatism.” 

Tashi Wangchuk in Beijing in 2015
Tashi Wangchuk in Beijing in 2015

Punished for speaking out

Tashi Wangchuk's arrest came just two months after he had featured in a New York Times article and online documentary. In his interviews with the newspaperTashi talked about his fears that the Tibetan language was at risk of serious decline and the existential threats this posed to Tibetan culture.

These fears had been prompted by local authorities in his native Jyekundo County in eastern Tibet. The authorities there had ordered the local monastery to close its Tibetan language classes, depriving his teenage nieces of a place to study in their mother tongue. This was despite Tibetan being an official language in Tibetan areas and despite the Chinese Constitution stating that “all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages.” Tashi’s fears that the next generation of Tibetans could grow up unable to speak their own language led to his decision to petition the Chinese authorities to comply with the constitution and provide Tibetan language education to every Tibetan child.

A language project to teach Tibetan. Literacy rates in Tibet are far lower than the Chinese national average.
A language project to teach Tibetan. Literacy rates in Tibet are far lower than the Chinese national average.

A crime without limits

Tashi worked within the system, approaching the government through official channels and being careful not to advocate Tibetan independence or anything that would allow the government to label him as a “separatist”.

“Inciting separatism” is one of a number of crimes against the state listed in the Chinese penal code and it is frequently used against Tibetans to punish a range of activities from taking part in a protest to flying the prohibited Tibetan national flag. Tibetans have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured for ‘crimes’ as simple sending emails to people outside the country about human rights, wishing the Dalai Lama a happy birthday and singing songs that celebrate Tibetan culture.

Individuals charged under state security crimes are often held in secret locations where they are at high risk of torture. In 2014 the United Nations Committee on Torture criticised China for continuing to permit the use of confessions extracted under torture in court. The Committee also noted cases of "deaths in custody, arbitrary detention and disappearances of Tibetans".

Despite the care he took, Tashi was himself charged with “inciting separatism”. At his trial on 4 January 2018, the New York Times’ footage was used as evidence against him. The video contains no content that could be interpreted as being anti-Chinese or in favour of Tibetan independence. Several experts who followed the case believe that he was really arrested and punished for daring to speak to a foreign journalist about the problems Tibetans face, including the threats that the Chinese occupation poses to their culture.

In limbo

Tashi was not found guilty on that day. Instead, he was made to wait until 22 May, a further four and a half months, to be convicted and sentenced. In the meantime he has become one of the most high-profile political prisoners in Tibet, with Tibetans, Tibet campaigners, human rights organisations, linguists, United Nations experts and the European Union demanding that China release him.

Tashi Wangchuk's relatives outside the court during his trial in January
Tashi Wangchuk's relatives outside the court during his trial in January

One of the most tragic aspects surrounding the fate of Tashi Wangchuk is that he is not alone. Today, International Prisoners Justice Day, serves as a timely reminder that Tibet has become a globally-recognised black spot for state crime where human rights are routinely flouted. According to conservative estimates, there are currently over 2,000 political prisoners in Tibet, many of them held in unknown locations, with no details about their wellbeing.

Official state figures show that China has a conviction rate of 99.93 percent; of the 1.16 million people placed on trial last year, Chinese courts returned a guilty verdict for all but 825 of them.

Sentences for state security crimes can be long: In January 2015, a Tibetan monk called Thardhod Gyaltsen was sentenced to 18 years in prison after police raiding his monastery allegedly found him to be in possession of images of the Dalai Lama and recordings of his teachings.

Thardhod Gyaltsen
Thardhod Gyaltsen
Thardhod Gyaltsen

International support

Despite his unenviable suffering, Tashi Wangchuk’s supporters are convinced that the comparatively lenient sentence he received for a state security crime is explained, in part, by the level of international attention and pressure his case generated.

Tashi Wangchuk himself has acknowledged that global support has assisted his case and many other Tibetan prisoners report that overseas awareness of their cases has sometimes helped save lives. He is not alone. Last month, Dhondup Wangchen, a former Tibetan political prisoner who has since escaped from Tibet, recalls the international support that he received:

“Whilst I was in prison in Tibet I was very much aware of the effort to support me and press for my release.”

His friend Golog Jigme, who was detained on several occasions and subjected to brutal torture by his captors, has also spoken about how the efforts from people around the world to free him from prison filtered through to him and helped him through his ordeal.

Pushing back

Our In The Dark campaign highlights the perils of Tibet's hidden prisoners and the effects that enforced disappearances and torture can have, not just on political prisoners but also on their families. It pushes for the locations of Tibet's political prisoners to be revealed and for them to be released.

International Prisoners Justice Day highlights the many indignities committed against prisoners in Tibet and worldwide. It also reminds us that when people stand in solidarity with those cut off from the world and at risk of torture and abuse, lives can be saved and change can come.  

Take action

As well as getting involved in our In The Dark campaign, you can also send a message to Zhang Jun, China's Minister of Justice, to raise Tashi Wangchuk's case and push for his immediate release.