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Tibetan Teacher Freed by China Lands in U.S.

Asia: Release of longtime political prisoner appears to be a move to improve ties with Washington.


BEIJING — China sent a Tibetan schoolteacher thought to be its longest-serving political prisoner to the United States for medical treatment on Saturday in what a prominent human rights campaigner said appeared to be an effort to improve ties with Washington.

Accompanied by a U.S. diplomat, Tanak Jigme Sangpo, 74, took a United Airlines flight from Beijing to Chicago, and proceeded to Washington, where he will stay with a niece.

"We're looking at a move to use the release of Tibetan prisoners to improve relations with the U.S.," said John Kamm, head of the San Francisco-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation, which negotiated with Beijing for Jigme Sangpo's release. But Kamm added in a telephone interview from San Francisco, "I'm not prepared to say that there's any signal of a change in [Beijing's] Tibet policy."

Jigme Sangpo has been the focus of intense lobbying by foreign governments.

His case was raised during trips to China by U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) in January and President Bush in February. U.S. Ambassador to China Clark T. Randt Jr. has publicly raised Jigme Sangpo's case in recent months.

Jigme Sangpo has also topped the lists of cases that European governments have raised with Beijing.

Since September, Chinese authorities have released or reduced the prison sentences of several notable Tibetan prisoners, including five Buddhist "singing nuns," who were punished for recording and smuggling pro-independence songs out of Drapchi Prison in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.

"This is very much a decision made at the top of the leadership, and it's being implemented by the central ministries in Beijing," Kamm said of Jigme Sangpo's case. "But at the level of the local Tibetan government, I did not sense any enthusiasm for this release at all," said Kamm, who was allowed to visit Jigme Sangpo in June.

Jigme Sangpo was reportedly first arrested in 1960s. As a teacher at an elementary school in Lhasa, he was accused of corrupting his students. By one account, his arrest stemmed from his refusal to punish a student who criticized Mao Tse-tung.

According to human rights groups, Jigme Sangpo wrote a letter in 1970 to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism's highest priest, detailing Chinese abuse of Tibetans. Jigme Sangpo's niece was to deliver it to the Dalai Lama in India, where the leader has lived in exile since 1959. Authorities foiled Jigme Sangpo's bid and sentenced him to 10 years of "reform through labor."

In 1983, authorities arrested Jigme Sangpo again, this time for posting handwritten, pro-Tibetan independence posters on the main gates of Tibet's holiest shrine, the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. He was sentenced him to 15 years in prison for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement," according to the Tibetan government in exile.

His sentence was extended in 1988 by five years because of a prison protest. During a 1991 visit by an official Swiss delegation to Drapchi Prison, Jigme Sangpo momentarily broke free and bellowed "Free Tibet!" in English within earshot of the group. Authorities responded by adding an additional eight years to his sentence.

His sentence was due to expire in 2011, when he would be 85 and have spent 41 years in prison. Human rights groups widely considered him to be China's longest-serving political prisoner.

Jigme Sangpo, who has coronary disease and high blood pressure, was released by Chinese authorities on medical parole in April. He lived with his niece in Lhasa under tight security, and officials reportedly denied his requests to visit the Jokhang Temple.

"Jigme Sangpo is about as pure a human rights case as you can imagine," Kamm said. "His case has always involved pure and simple, nonviolent expression of his belief in an independent Tibet, and for that he has paid a huge price."

Last year, Kamm delivered to Chinese authorities a list of 20 Tibetan political prisoners about whom he sought information. The Chinese response in October mentioned the release of several prisoners, and Kamm is hoping for further releases as Beijing updates information on other cases.

Kamm was allowed to see Jigme Sangpo in Lhasa in June.

"He's very dignified and educated," Kamm said. "I think the world is going to get to know this guy and be very impressed by what they see."

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