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China frees prominent Tibetan prisoner

Former Tibetan monk, Jigme Gyatso, released due to poor health allegedly as a result of treatment received in jail.

Last Modified: 02 Apr 2013 17:02
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Jigme Gyatso was arrested in 1996 and jailed for "inciting splittism" and "counter-revolution" [File: Reuters]

A Tibetan political prisoner has been released after 17 years in a Chinese jail and is reported to be in poor health, an overseas Tibetan spokesman and a US a broadcaster have said.

They said Jigme Gyatso's condition was allegedly as a result of treatment he received in jail.

The 52-year-old former monk, held by the Chinese government on charges of endangering national security and separatism, returned on Tuesday to his hometown in an ethnic Tibetan area in the northwest province of Gansu, according to Tashi Phuntsok, spokesman for the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile in India.

Gyatso had been released about one year early due to poor health caused by harsh treatment in prison, Phuntsok said.

Radio Free Asia also reported Gyatso's release, saying he appeared "very weak" upon returning home on Monday after being released two days earlier from Chusul prison near Tibet's regional capital Lhasa, where many political prisoners are held.

The radio station said friends reported him as walking with a limp and complaining of problems with his heart and vision and other physical complaints related to poor nutrition or lack of medical treatment.

It was, however, not immediately possible to confirm Gyatso's release with Chinese officials. Chusul prison has no listed phone number and government and police officials in Lhasa said they had no information on the case. 

Tibet remains off-limits to foreign reporters without special permission.

Call for release 

Gyatso was among Tibet's better-known political prisoners, with numerous organisations including Amnesty International calling for his release.

Manfred Nowak, the then-United Nations special rapporteur on torture, called for Gyatso to be set free, after meeting him in 2005.

The prisoner was arrested during a crackdown on dissent in 1996. He was sentenced to 15 years on charges of "inciting splittism" and the now-abolished crime of "counter-revolution".

Initially held at Lhasa's notorious Drapchi prison, he was among a group of prisoners who were reportedly beaten and tortured following a pro-independence protest in 1998 coinciding with a visit by European Union delegates.

His sentence was then extended by three years in 2004 after he shouted slogans in prison in support of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. 

China says Tibet has been its territory for centuries, while many Tibetans say theirs was an independent state.

China has used overwhelming force to crush successive waves of anti-government activism among Tibetans, the latest in 2008 when bloody rioting in Lhasa sparked a wave of protests across Tibetan regions.

The fate of many of those detained remains unknown, while numerous Tibetans arrested earlier on state security charges continue to serve long sentences.

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