Radio Free Asia | April 2, 2013

Undated photo of Jigme Gyatso before his jailing in 1996. [RFA]

A popular Tibetan activist has been freed after serving 17 years in prison with hard labor for seeking independence for Tibet and calling for the long life of Tibet’s spirtual leader, the Dalai Lama, according to a Tibetan source.

Jigme Gyatso, 52, a former monk, appeared “very weak” when he returned Monday to his home in Sangchu (in Chinese, Xiahe) county in Gansu province’s Kanlho (Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture after being released from Chusul prison near Tibet’s capital Lhasa on Saturday, the source told RFA’s Tibetan Service.

Jigme Gyatso, who was the leader of the Association of Tibetan Freedom Movement, was sentenced in 1996 to 15 years in prison on charges of being a “counter-revolutionary ring leader” and endangering national security.

The Chinese authorities added three more years to his sentence in 2004 for “inciting separatism” when he shouted in prison for the long life of Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India’s Dharamsala hill town.

Jigme Gyatso was due to be released in March 2014.

Many international human rights groups had protested his jailing or campaigned on his behalf, including Amnesty International which designated him a prisoner of conscience after accusing the Chinese authorities of beating and torturing him in prison. He was also hospitalized for a unknown period during his imprisonment.

A year after he was sentenced, he was beaten so badly that he could barely walk afterwards, Amnesty had said in one of its reports.

“After he was released from prison, Jigme Gyatso was ordered to leave for his hometown and reached his hometown on April 1 with a police escort,” the Tibetan source said.

“Those who saw him reported that he was very weak. He was limping and reported having heart problems and high blood pressure. His vision was also weak,” Jigme Gyatso’s friend, Jamyang Tsultrim, who is living in exile in India, told RFA, citing local contacts.

Violent response

In May 1998, Jigme Gyatso was among a group of prisoners in Lhasa’s Drapchi prison who began shouting pro-Dalai Lama slogans, prompting a violent response from prison staff which resulted in the death of nine inmates, reports had said.

The protest coincided with a European Union delegation’s visit to the prison.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture met with Jigme Gyatso during his mission to China in November 2005 and appealed to the Chinese authorities for his release.

Following that, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that his detention was arbitrary and violated his rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The World Organisation Against Torture, a large coalition of non-governmental organizations fighting against arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions, and other forms of violence, reported in 2009 that Jigme Gyatso had become “very frail,” suffered from kidney dysfunction, and could “only walk with his back bent.”

Amnesty said in 2011 that he was suspected to be “seriously ill as a result of torture and ill-treatment in custody.”

Reported by Lumbum Tashi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.