Jailed Filmmaker Who Made Documentary on Tibetans' Plight Freed

Dhondup Wangchen after his release from prison.

A Tibetan filmmaker jailed in China’s Gansu province for making an award-winning  documentary about the lives of Tibetans under harsh Chinese rule was freed Thursday after serving a six-year sentence, according to family members who say he is in poor health without having received medical care during his imprisonment.

Dhondup Wangchen, a farmer who taught himself filmmaking, told his brother on his release that he was sad about his experience and said that his rights have been curbed.

“When asked about his present condition, he said that everything inside him is nothing but a sea of tears,” Wangchen’s brother Jamyang Tsultrim told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

“He said that he hoped to recover his health, but at the same time he said that he was not worried for himself,” Jamyang Tsultrim said, speaking from exile in Switzerland. “However I had the impression that he is still not able to talk freely, ”

Wangchen was taken into custody on March 23, 2008 after returning from exile to work on the 25-minute film “Leaving Fear Behind,” which consists of interviews with 108 ordinary Tibetans and documents the harsh conditions of Tibetans’ lives under Chinese rule.

The film was produced outside China after he managed to send footage out of Tibet before being seized by police. It was later shown to foreign journalists in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, angering and embarrassing China.

Wangchen’s release came just three weeks after his assistant Golog Jigme Gyatso fled into exile in India after escaping detention in Tibet, where he had suffered beatings and torture for his role in helping Wangchen produce his film.

Police block celebration

Wangchen, who had been held in jail in Sangchu (in Chinese, Xiahe) county in the Kanlho (Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture was released after serving his full prison term, Tsultrim said.

“His family and other Tibetans had planned to give him a warm welcome on his release after serving six years in jail.  However, Chinese police took him in a vehicle straight to his [family] home in order to prevent a public celebration and reception,” Tsultrim said.

Released in Gansu on Thursday morning, Wangchen was taken directly to his sister’s house in Khotse village in Bayen (Hualong) county in the Tsoshar (Haidong) prefecture of neighboring Qinghai province, according to a statement by the Swiss-based film group Filming for Tibet.

“I hope to recover my health soon,” Wangchen told his cousin Gyaljong Tsetrin, president of Filming for Tibet and co-producer of “Leaving Fear Behind,” in a phone call following his release, according to the statement.

“I would like to express my feeling of deepest gratitude for all the support I received while in prison and I want to be reunited with my family,” the statement quoted Wangchen as saying. 

Also quoted in Filming for Tibet's statement, Wangchen’s wife Lhamo Tso, who was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2012 and now lives in San Francisco, said, “Six years of injustice and painful counting the days ended today.”

“[This] is a day of unbelievable joy for his parents in Dharamsala, our children and myself. We look forward to be reunited as a family."

Intense emotion

Speaking to her husband by telephone following his release, “my emotion was so intense that I could not speak, and broke down in tears,” Tso told RFA's Tibetan Service on Thursday.

“He told me not to cry and asked about our children and our living conditions. He was particularly concerned to know whether our children are learning and speaking the Tibetan language, and to know about their school.”

“I did ask about his health, but his health is not good,” Tso said.

“He is suffering and is still bothered by an old illness, for which he was never treated while in jail,” she said.

After his arrest, the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ran a petition campaign for Wangchen, calling him “a courageous man who took the risk of returning to his country to interview other Tibetans," and the Committee to Protect Journalists later honored him with its 2012 International Freedom Award

In March 2008, authorities also detained Golog Jigme Gyatso, a monk from the Tibetan Kham region, who had assisted Wangchen in the making of his film.

Released in October 2008 after being tortured, Gyatso was detained for a second time in March 2009  and disappeared again into custody in September 2012.

He later escaped from a detention center near a Tibetan-populated area in Gansu province and fled into exile in India, where he arrived this year on May 18.

Reported by Lumbum Tashi, Rigdhen Dolma, and Yangdon Demo for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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