CPJ recognized jailed Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen in 2012. (Michael Nagle/Getty Images for CPJ)
CPJ is petitioning for release of Tibetan Dhondup Wangchen from Chinese jail. (Michael Nagle/Getty Images for CPJ)

Nearly 20,000 call to free Kyrgyz, Tibetan journalists

“I remain hopeful that I will one day see the sun once more–not through the barred window of my prison cell but as a free man.” -Azimjon Askarov

Today, on International Human Rights Day, CPJ and close to 20,000 supporters are calling on the governments of China and Kyrgyzstan to release two journalists imprisoned for reporting on minorities’ grievances and human rights violations.

In China, Dhondup Wangchen is serving a six-year prison term for work on his film “Leaving Fear Behind,” which documents conditions faced by Tibetans under Chinese rule leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Our petition calling for his release garnered 14,195 signatures, almost all via Causes.com. The petition was sent to China’s president, Hu Jintao, and likely president-to-be Xi Jinping, today.

In November–the month CPJ honored Wangchen with an International Press Freedom Award–Human Rights Watch documented 27 Tibetan incidents of self-immolation. Those many acts of desperation highlight the failure of Chinese authorities to the address the grievances Wangchen set out to document in his film. Meanwhile, confusion and concern have grown around Wangchen’s assistant on the film, the monk Jigme Gyatso, who has been missing since September (he disappeared seven days after CPJ announced Wangchen’s award).

(Courtesy of CNN)

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Azimjon Askarov, a journalist and human rights defender, is serving a life sentence in connection with his coverage of law enforcement abuses. CPJ and 5,614 supporters (also mostly garnered on Causes.com) are calling on Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev to unconditionally release Askarov, also a recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.

Askarov was taken into police custody while covering human rights violations during ethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010. While in custody, he was repeatedly beaten before being charged under a series of anti-state crimes, as well as with complicity in a police officer’s murder. His prosecution and conviction have been challenged by a range of human rights organizations as well as by the Kyrgyz government’s own ombudsman’s office. His lawyers recently filed an appeal with the U.N. Human Rights Committee seeking his release.

After learning about CPJ’s award, while listening to a broadcast by Voice of America radio in a cold basement cell of a Kyrgyz jail, Askarov wrote a letter of thanks to CPJ. “Fifteen years ago I promised myself that no person and no circumstance would ever force me to abandon my professional duty, which I have taken by honor, conscience, and dignity,” Askarov wrote to us. “Today, incarcerated, I am ready to repeat this promise, and I hope that I will have enough moral strength to stand by these principles of conscience until the end of my days.”

(Courtesy of CNN)

The petition packages for Hu, Xi, and Atambayev include a list of signatures, photos, and video from the awards ceremony. Every time a critical voice is imprisoned, the international community must step up and amplify that voice. Petitions and other awareness-raising campaigns are crucial because they increase the political cost for the government.

We are also sending copies of the petition packages to the two prisons. We hope they will make it to the imprisoned and bolster their moral strength. If not, at least some prison guard will know the outside world is watching.

UPDATE: This post was changed to correct Xi Jinping’s designation and to reflect that the petition is also being sent to current Chinese President Hu Jintao. It was also updated to correct the number of signatures on Wangchen’s petition and to reflect that both petitions were circulated on Causes.com.