News and Views on Tibet

Ngawang Sangdrol arrives in the United States

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by Kate Saunders

Ngawang Sangdrol, the nun who served ten years in prison for peaceful protest before being released nine years before the end of her 21-year sentence on “good behaviour” parole last October, has been allowed to leave Tibet and arrived in Chicago in the US on Friday afternoon (28 March). Twenty-six year old Ngawang Sangdrol, who suffered severe beatings and maltreatment during her sentence in Drapchi prison (Tibet Autonomous Region Prison Number One), Lhasa, was granted what is in effect a new parole on medical grounds after concerns about her health had been raised with the Chinese authorities by several Western governments, notably the US, Swiss and French. Ngawang Sangdrol, who is expected to travel tonight to Washington DC, where she will receive medical treatment, is said to be “overjoyed and very grateful”.

Ngawang Sangdrol (lay name: Rigchog), from Garu nunnery, first became involved in political activities when she was only 11 years old, participating in the pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa in the late 1980s. Following her arrest at the age of 15 for attempting to demonstrate, she became well-known and highly respected among other political prisoners during her imprisonment at Drapchi for her determination and instigation of peaceful protests for a free Tibet or against the prison regime. Her release last year followed years of campaigning and high-level lobbying on her behalf by Tibet support groups and human rights organisations.

Ngawang Sangdrol’s departure from Tibet to the US follows months of sensitive talks with the authorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Beijing. The conditions of her parole had been particularly stringent; Ngawang Sangdrol, who was staying with her sister in Lhasa, had been under constant surveillance and had been required to report every month to Drapchi prison. On 28 February, John Kamm, Director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, was allowed to meet Ngawang Sangdrol in Lhasa. He reported in a statement today that she asked him for help in going overseas for medical treatment. Kamm said: “She has been suffering from blinding headaches which are extremely debilitating; she told me they last for seven or eight days, despite attempts by local hospitals to cure them. It seemed to me there was an urgent need for specialist medical treatment.”

Ngawang Sangdrol’s departure to the US for medical treatment was finalised during recent talks between US Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner and his Chinese counterparts. She was accompanied on the flight to Chicago by an official from the US Embassy in Beijing, and was met on her arrival by a representative of the US State Department.

Ngawang Sangdrol is the third high-profile political prisoner to be allowed to leave Tibet following release from prison and travel to the US since January 2002. Music scholar Ngawang Choephel arrived in the US last January after serving six years of an 18-year sentence for espionage, and the elderly former prisoner Tagna Jigme Zangpo, is now in Switzerland following his departure from Tibet for medical treatment in the US last July, after being released eight years before the end of a 28-year sentence. Four Tibetan nuns were also released before the end of their sentences last year.

The timing of Ngawang Sangdrol’s release from prison in October 2002 coincided with preparations for a trip to the US by former President Jiang Zemin. The permission granted to this high-profile former prisoner to leave Tibet at a time of international tension over the Iraq conflict, when China has been critical of US foreign policy, may signal a continuing commitment by Beijing to the improvement of relations with the US. There has also been some concern within the Chinese authorities regarding the international reaction to the execution of Lobsang Dondrub, accused of bombing offences, on 26 January. Concern about the hasty imposition of this death sentence was expressed by the US, Canada, Australia, Norway, the European Union, the UK and Switzerland, representing one of the strongest international reactions to issues of human rights in Tibet in many years.

Ngawang Sangdrol first suffered severe maltreatment in detention at the age of only 13, when she was reportedly beaten so badly during a period of detention in Gutsa detention centre in Lhasa that she sustained permanent damage to her hands. Following her arrest in June 1992, for attempting to demonstrate, she was sentenced to three years imprisonment. In 1993, she and 13 other nuns tape-recorded songs about their love for their families and for their homeland and the cassette was smuggled out of Drapchi prison. As a result, Ngawang Sangdrol had her sentence extended by six years and, together with the other nuns, was severely beaten. She received a second sentence extension in 1996 following her participation in acts of protest at Drapchi; she was among a number of female political prisoners who protested about the official Panchen Lama candidate during meetings initiated by the Drapchi authorities in spring 1996, and on another occasion she refused to stand up when a prison officer entered her cell.

Ngawang Sangdrol was later given a third sentence extension, reportedly following involvement in protests at Drapchi prison in May 1998 linked to the visit of a European Union ambassadorial delegation and individual protests later in the same year. She suffered severe beatings together with other nuns, and former prisoners reported that on at least one occasion her head was kicked. In October 2001 Ngawang Sangdrol’s sentence was reduced by 18 months, according to the Chinese authorities, for “showing genuine repentance and willingness to reform”. It was also reported that she had been exempted from hard labour, and was given “light work suitable for female inmates, e.g. knitting and weaving.” In October last year, she was released due to a regulation that makes prisoners who enter prison as juveniles eligible for early release. She now appears to have been granted a new form of parole on medical grounds by the head of Drapchi prison, followed by permission to leave Tibet for medical treatment.

This is the second in a series of independent reports by Kate Saunders, commissioned by Australia Tibet Council, Free Tibet Campaign and the International Campaign for Tibet.

Read her first report: New Leadership Roles Reflect China’s Priorities on Tibet

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