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)

Anxiety for jailed Tibetan filmmaker as release nears

In a better world, it is usually a time for joy when a prisoner nears his or her release date. Jailed Tibetan journalists and their families do not live in that world. They live in a crueler place, where freedom is a distant mirage that might never be reached, and exhaustion or death is the reality.

CPJ first met Lhamo Tso in November 2012, when she was in New York to accept a CPJ International Press Freedom Award on behalf of her jailed husband, Dhondup Wangchen.  He is a self-taught Tibetan documentary filmmaker who conceived and shot the film “Leaving Fear Behind” to portray life in Tibet. Lhamo Tso says her husband is set for release from a labor camp in Qinghai in June 2014. But this father of four is already in bad health, and his life is at risk.

This petite, unpretentious woman speaks from a mountaintop of integrity grounded in incredibly hard experience: “In Tibet, evidence has shown that political prisoners are granted sudden release when the Chinese authorities try to avoid custodial death in prison and take the blame. I urge you to help me to bring the father of my children back, alive,” Lhamo Tso says in asking the international community to pressure the Chinese government.

Later this month, she will be first in Los Angeles and then New York to accept an award for Dhondup from our colleagues at the Visual Artists Guild. She has asked us to help publicize the events and the statement she will make at those ceremonies.

This is what she will tell the people gathered to recognize her husband:

My name is Lhamo Tso, I am the wife of Dhondup Wangchen and would like to express on behalf of my family and friends our gratitude and pride for the decision by the Visual Artists Guild association to award Dhondup for his work.

At this occasion, I also would like to remember Jigme Gyatso, a friend of Dhondup and mine who helped to produce “Leaving Fear Behind” and is now the target of a brutal manhunt, hiding somewhere in the mountains of Tibet as we come together here today.

This award coincides with the final and most critical phase of Dhondup’s imprisonment. The reason for my growing worry is an observation that is shared by many people: In the past few weeks a wave of releases of Tibetan writers and activists has taken place. The health conditions of all the released men were deplorable. A close friend of mine called Jigme who spent more than 17 years in prison is among this group of ex-prisoners. I hardly recognized him when I saw his picture.

It is a common experience that prisoners are facing the most dangerous time before being released: Last year, Dhondup was sent for more than six months to solitary confinement and was then shifted to another labor camp in Qinghai. I recently talked with people from the region who told me troubling news. Additional to his liver problems there is now an issue with his eyes. I am worried.

In Tibet, evidence has shown that political prisoners are granted sudden release when the Chinese authorities try to avoid custodial death in prison and take the blame. I urge you to help me to bring the father of my children back, alive.

Dhondup told a story with his small camera and it seems that by truthfully sharing our sorrows of China’s occupation and our hopes for freedom he touched your hearts. It gratifies me a lot that the man I love is among the honorees, your award is a compassionate expression of people’s ability to care about other people and contributes to Tibetan-Chinese reconciliation. 

Over the past five years, I, as a mother, have tried to strengthen the confidence of my children and tried to explain to them why our family has had to undergo so much suffering and anxiety. I told them: Your father is the proud son of a farmer family. He never enjoyed a formal education. His school was life itself and the lessons were extremely harsh. He, however, was fueled by curiosity and strong principles which finally led to the challenge of a regime that does not believe in the good of men. 

I pray that our children will understand that our painful sacrifice of separation was not in vain but served the purpose of a better tomorrow for all people in this world. 

I pray that the sleepless and lonely nights will soon belong to the past.

And I appeal to you to help me to safely bring back the father of my children and that we are united again as a family.