Profile: Tibet’s longest imprisoned political prisoners

Tibetans suspected of opposing policies of the PRC have frequently been detained as political prisoners for extraordinarily lengthy periods. Many remain in detention today, having spent the best part of their lives behind bars. We shall be profiling some of these prisoners of conscience in future Human Rights Updates, beginning in this Update with Tibet’s longest imprisoned political prisoner, Tanak Jigme Sangpo.

Photo of Tanak Jigme SangpoBorn 1926, Tanak Jigme Sangpo was reportedly first arrested in 1960 while teaching at Lhasa Primary School and charged with “corrupting the minds of children with reactionary ideas”. In 1964 he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Sangyip Prison over comments regarding Chinese repression of Tibetans, and was then sent to labour camp in Lhasa. In 1970 he was sentenced to ten years hard labour in Sangyip Prison on charges of inciting his niece to escape to India and report Chinese atrocities to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Tanak Jigme Sangpo was released from prison in 1979 and transferred to the Reform-through-Labour Unit 1 in Nyethang, 60 km west of Lhasa, but was arrested again on 3 September 1983 by the Lhasa City Public Security Bureau. Tanak had been seen on 12 July 1983 pasting a personally written wall-poster protesting against Chinese authority at the main temple of Tsuklhakhang Temple in Lhasa, and several days later had worn a white banner over his body to symbolise the ultimate realisation of Tibetan people’s freedom and independence. Even after arrest Tanak’s determination was unabated as he sang the Tibetan national anthem and repeated his claim that he would continue to struggle for Tibetan independence.

In the official sentence paper, issued on 30 November 1983, the Lhasa City Intermediate People’s Court noted that the defendent had evidently never seriously reconsidered his past “counter-revolutionary propaganda” and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in addition to five years deprivation of civil and political rights.

On 1 December 1988, Tanak was again prosecuted for raising “reactionary slogans” relating to Chinse suppression of Tibet whilst in Drapchi Prison (also called the “Tibet Autonomous Region” Prison). Found once more guilty of “spreading and inciting counter-revolutionary propaganda”, his sentence was increased by five years and the period of deprivation of civil and political rights extended a further year.

On 6 December 1991, 64-year-old Tanak led a protest at Drapchi Prison during a visit by Swiss government officials in which a number of political prisoners shouted slogans supporting the Dalai Lama and calling for Chinese to leave Tibet. After the delegation was requested to leave, Tanak was dragged from the room and beaten so severely that his body turned numb. Six weeks later he was reported to still be in solitary confinement and suffering a new form of ‘cold cell’ torture. Large sheets of metal had been erected on either side of him to lower the temperature if the cell and he had been refused any extra clothes.

Tanak was subsequently sentenced on 4 April 1992 to a further eight years imprisonment and an additional three years deprivation of civil and political rights. This brings his current sentence to 28 years and by the time he is released on 3 September 2011, at the age of 85, he shall have spent 41 years in prison.

Today Tanak is 70 years old, he is extremely weak and his eyesight is rapidly deteriorating. Yet his great belief in the Tibetan cause and his prevailing sense of justice has never waned. It is vital that the international community similarly continues to demand justice for Tanak and the many other political prisoners like him.

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