Phuntsog Nyidron

Phuntsog Nyidron arrives at Dulles airport in Washington DC on March 15, 2006.

Phuntsog Nyidron, a Tibetan nun who was imprisoned for 15 years after peaceful protests in 1989, arrived in San Francisco this morning more than two years after her release from Drapchi (Tibet Autonomous Region) prison, Lhasa. Thirty-four year old Phuntsog Nyidron, who has suffered from ill-health following torture while in custody, was accompanied by a US Embassy official on the flight and released into ICT’s care on arrival. She had an emotional reunion at the airport with her former cell-mate Ngawang Sangdrol, who now lives in the US, as well as Mary-Beth Markey, Executive Director of ICT.

Mary Beth Markey said: “Phuntsog Nyidron and Sangdrol have been hugging, holding hands and crying, overjoyed to be reunited. This release is wonderful for Phuntsog and her former prison comrades. However it is important to note that despite serious engagement between the US and China over the years, there has been little or no progress on fundamental human rights issues in Tibet. Tibetans like Phuntsog Nyidron continue to suffer torture and imprisonment simply for the peaceful expression of their views.”

The release to the US of Phuntsog Nyidron appears to be a gesture in advance of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Washington, DC summit with President Bush on April 19-20. It also follows the fifth round of dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing, which concluded last month.

Phuntsog Nyidron, a former Mechungri nun from Lhasa who won the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1995, is the last of a high-profile group of nuns detained for acts of peaceful resistance over the past decade to be released. She was arrested on October 14, 1989, for taking part in a peaceful protest against Chinese rule, linked to the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. She was subsequently sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment by the Lhasa Intermediate People’s Court on November 25, 1989. In September 1993, she received an eight-year sentence extension after she joined 13 other nuns, including Ngawang Sangdrol, in secretly recording songs about their prison experience and hopes for Tibet’s future on a tape cassette that was smuggled out to the outside world. After a one-year sentence reduction for good behavior in March 2001, the remainder of her sentence was commuted on February 26, 2004, and she was released from prison.

Since then, Phuntsog Nyidron has been held at home in Lhasa under close surveillance and denied a passport because her political rights have been under restriction. Last August, a delegation from the US Commission for International Religious Freedom was allowed to have a brief interview with her in Lhasa, and reported: “[Phuntsog Nyidron] remains under constant surveillance, is restricted in her movements and associations, and has debilitating health problems that cannot be addressed in her locality.” The US Commission said that the Chinese authorities had denied that she was under surveillance.

Phuntsog Nyidron’s arrival in the US today follows a number of other early releases of well-known political prisoners from Tibet and one from Xinjiang (East Turkestan) in recent years, generally timed to coincide with specific periods of US-China engagement involving criticisms of Beijing’s human rights record. Uyghur prisoner Rebiya Kadeer was released to the US in March 2005 after serving six years of an eight year sentence, soon before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to the PRC. Ngawang Sangdrol’s release to the US in March 2003 after serving 11 years of a 21-year sentence came before a significant visit of the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin to America.

Phuntsog Nyidron, who was serving the longest sentence of female political prisoners after Ngawang Sangdrol’s 21 years, was released soon after the US State Department released its annual human rights report that found China guilty of ‘serious human rights abuses’ in Tibet, including “execution without due process, torture, arbitrary arrest, detention without public trial, and lengthy detention of Tibetans for peacefully expressing their political or religious views.” The report was thought to lay the path for the US to table a critical resolution on China at the UN Commission of Human Rights meeting in Geneva that year.

Ngawang Sangdrol, who shared a cell with Phuntsog Nyidron for several years, said today: “It is overwhelming to see Phuntsog Nyidron again. In prison, she was always so strong, we thought she could do anything, and she had great self-confidence and courage. We had no chance to study in prison, but she was so hard-working in the labor tasks assigned to her, and very devoted in her Buddhist practice.”