By Tenzin Dharpo
DHARAMSHALA, Mar. 27: Exiled Tibetan filmmaker and former political prisoner who spent 6 years in Chinese prison for his documentary film ‘Leaving Fear Behind’ was awarded the prestigious ‘Courage Award’ at the 11th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on Tuesday.
Wangchen who escaped occupied Tibet in December 2017 after years of incarceration and constant scrutiny after his release said in his acceptance speech yesterday that sharing the story of his life’s hardest time and breathing the air of freedom now feels “like a dream”.
He said that suffering torture and failing health in prison did not rob him of the satisfaction that his film gave the world a glimpse of what China was doing in his country and what his countrymen felt and suffered.
Wangchen thanked the international community including governments, NGO’s and activist groups that had campaigned on his behalf for all these years and keeping his case on the forefront of global notice. “It is because of your support that I am here today. I never imagined that a day like this would come when I’m finally able to speak freely, breathe the air of freedom in this free world. The courage you had shown yesterday changed my today and the courage we show today will change the future of Tibetans,” he said.
Chinese dissident and President of Initiative for China, Yang Jianli presented the award to Wangchen. Former recipients of the award include Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen, jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Venezuelan opposition leader Antonio Ledezma.
Between 2007 to 2008, Wangchen and his filming assistant Golog Jigme interviewed 108 Tibetans from various parts of Tibet, discussing the political situation and repressive Chinese rule in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The documentary film ‘Leaving Fear behind’ extracted from over 40 hours of raw footage was later released worldwide by Zurich-based Filming for Tibet and Dhondup Wangchen’s cousin, Gyaljong Tsetrin.
Dhondup Wangchen and Golog Jigme were later detained by Chinese authorities in March 2008 for making the documentary film. In Dec. 2009, after over a year of being held incommunicado, Dhondup Wangchen was sentenced to six years in prison for “inciting subversion”. His friend and assistant, Tibetan monk Golok Jigme, suffered detention and torture.
Dhondup Wangchen suffered torture and manual labor during his sentence and contracted Hepatitis B in prison. Even after his release from a prison in Qinghai’s provincial capital Xining on June 5, 2014, Wangchen continued to be heavily watched and put under surveillance by Chinese authorities. Wangchen said former political prisoners are like “breathing dead bodies” who are deprived of political, financial and medical subsidies by the government.
His film received acclaimed following in capturing the grassroots Tibetan psyche and highlighted the feelings and emotions of Tibetans under Chinese rule. The documentary received international awards including Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award in 2012 and the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent in 2014.