By James H. Zimmerman, Jr., Amnesty USA China Country Specialist
Dhondup Wangchen and his wife, Lhamo Tso, were running a restaurant in Lhasa, Tibet in 2006 when he got a video camera.
Although he had never used one before, Dhondup Wangchen and his friends conceived the idea to film some reactions of ordinary Tibetan people to the Olympic games, scheduled to be held in Beijing in 2008. Eventually, they had recorded interviews with several hundred people running over several hours of video.
The people also had a few things to say about Chinese policies in Tibet. You can hear them in Dhondup Wangchen's film Leaving Fear Behind, which is available on YouTube, edited down to 24 minutes.
The original videos were sent out of the country for safekeeping in Switzerland. Meanwhile the film was screened for foreign journalists in a Beijing hotel on August 6, 2008, two days before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
Unfortunately, the police invited themselves to the premiere. They did not like what they saw and stopped the screening.
Recognizing the danger, Dhondup sent his wife, four children, and elderly parents to safety in Nepal and India.
Dhondup Wangchen was tried on charges of "inciting separatism" and sentenced in 2009. He is scheduled to be released in December 2014. In prison, he has been subjected to solitary confinement and torture, and has not received treatment for Hepatitis B or an eye condition he developed there.
Recently, he has been held in a women's prison in Qinghai province; the reason for this is unknown.
In 2012, with the help of Amnesty International, Dhondup Wangchen's wife Lhamo Tso received a visa to visit the United States, Canada and Europe as part of a tour to solicit support for his release.
This year, she and her four children were recognized as political refugees and are now living in San Francisco. She has also made two trips to San Diego to plead for her husband's release.
Since 1959, when the Dalai Lama left for India, the Chinese government has carried out policies in Tibet which have repeatedly violated the most basic rights of the Tibetan people. Party work teams have installed themselves in Tibetan monasteries, carrying out programs of compulsory "patriotic education." Many ordinary Tibetans, like Dhondup Wangchen, have been subjected to prison, detention, and torture. In protest, Tibetans have immolated themselves in more than 130 incidents according to media reports.
Sino-Tibetan relations go back 13 centuries. But never before has the existence of the Tibetan people been threatened as it is today. With the opening of the Qinghai-Lhasa railway and the influx of nearly one million Han Chinese into Lhasa, and the continued deprivation of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, the outlook for Tibet may indeed be grim.
Neither Dhondup Wangchen, nor his wife ever attended school. Yet, as a self-taught videographer, he has brought the voices of Tibetans to the world. Over 16,000 people have watched his film on YouTube.
But much more is needed. Chinese prisoners are not always released on the expiration of their sentences, but Dhondhup Wangchen, who is a prisoner of conscience, should be released now. He can then seek treatment for his medical conditions.
Everyone can do their part by letting the Chinese government know that this courageous man should be released now.