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Dhondup Wangchen was arrested in Tibet on 26 March 2008 for filming interviews with ordinary Tibetans on their views on the Olympic Games, the Dalai Lama and Chinese government policies in Tibet. The interviews were made into a documentary film Leaving Fear Behind, which gives the viewer a rare glimpse into the reality of Tibetans living under Chinese occupation and has now been screened in 30 countries.
Dhondup Wangchen was born on 17 October 1974 in Bayen in the Tsoshar region of Amdo, the northeastern province of Tibet. Born into a farming family, Dhondup received no formal education and as a young man, he moved to Lhasa where he became aware of the grave threats faced by the Tibetan people. In 1993, Dhondup, along with his cousin Gyaljong Tsultrin, made the arduous journey out of Tibet to India, traveling on foot over 5,000 meter passes to receive a teaching by the Dalai Lama. Soon thereafter both returned to Tibet further motivated to work for the benefit of the Tibetan people but in 2002, Tsetrin was forced to flee Tibet and received political asylum in Switzerland.
In 2007 the two cousins began to work in collaboration on the film Leaving Fear Behind, with Dhondup in Tibet and Gyaljong in Switzerland. Dhondup, with the help of his friend Jigme Gyatso, set out with extraordinary courage to film Tibetans in Tibet describe in their own words their views and feelings about the Dalai Lama, the Beijing Olympic Games and Chinese laws in Tibet.
They traveled thousands of miles and overcame innumerable hurdles, determined to bring the unheard voices of the Tibetan people to the world stage. The resulting interviews are a remarkable portrayal of ordinary Tibetans and their stories of hardship and courage that gives a rare glimpse of the thoughts, feelings, and struggles of Tibetans living under occupation.
In Dhondup Wangchen’s own words: “At a time of great difficulty and a feeling of helplessness, [the idea of our film is to] get some meaningful response and results. It is very difficult [for Tibetans] to go to Beijing and speak out there. So that is why we decided to show the real feelings of Tibetans inside Tibet through this film.”
For the filmmakers, revealing their identities was always a part of the plan. Fully aware of the risks they took, they rejected anonymity as an option. In order for the film to be made, fear had to be truly set aside. The footage for the film was smuggled out of Tibet in early March 2008.
On 26 March 2008, Dhondup Wangchen was detained in Tongde eastern Tibet (Ch: Qinghai Province) without charge for 19 months. His lawyer, Li Dunyong, was replaced with a government-appointed lawyer in July 2009. Li has told Tibetan authorities that Wangchen was tortured in order to extract a confession. Dhondup Wangchen has been tortured and has not received medical treatment despite having contracted Hepititis B. Two Chinese lawyers who have offered to represent him have been prevented from seeing him by the Chinese authorities. Jigme Gyatso was also detained in late March 2008 but released “temporarily” in October 2008.
Dhondup Wangchen’s family, who live in exile, have learned that he was transfered to Xichuan Prison (a Labour Camp in Qinghai Province) in April 2010. It is assumed that an appeal against his sentence was refused or has failed. According to the Washington DC based Laogai Research Foundation, Xichuan Prison is a labour camp that manufactures aluminum alloy windows, ordinary bricks, porous and hollow bricks and sinter concrete blocks.
Dhondup Wangchen’s wife Lhamo Tso continues to appeal to China and the international community for her husband’s release. For a while, she lived with their four young children in Dharamsala, India, but has recently been granted political asylum in the United States.
Jamyang Tsultrim, president of Filming for Tibet who helped producing ‘Leaving Fear Behind’ said in a press release: “After a long journey, Lhamo Tso has finally reached a safe haven. We hope that Dhondup Wangchen will soon join his wife and four children who have suffered from family separation. We also hope that Lhamo Tso can now start a more peaceful chapter in her family’s story and would like to ask all people to support her in finding a suitable job and make a successful start in the US.”
In May 2013 Dhondup Wangchen received a Visual Artists Guild Award in Los Angeles and New York, and Lhamo Tso accepted the award in his place.
In her statement, she said: “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.”
Bob Dietz, Asia Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, has written an open letter to Barack Obama and Xi Jinping appealing for the release of Dhondup Wangchen. Read in full here.