Calls for Immediate Release of Jailed Tibetan Filmmaker

Dhondup Wangchen in a screenshot from his 2008 film “Leaving Fear Behind”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is asking supporters to sign an online petition that calls on Chinese President Hu Jintao to immediately release unjustly imprisoned Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen. Mr. Dhondup is one of four international journalists who have risked their lives to reveal abuses of power and will be honored with CPJ’s 2012 International Press Freedom Awards later this month. He will not be allowed attend the awards ceremony while he languishes in a prison cell in China.

A brave journalist and human rights defender, Dhondup, 38, is a self-taught Tibetan documentary filmmaker who conceived and shot the 25-minute film “Leaving Fear Behind” to portray life in Tibet in advance of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The film is based on 35 hours of footage and 108 interviews that he conducted over five months. The footage includes candid conversations conducted with Tibetans who expressed views on a range of issues, from the Dalai Lama and the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the human rights situation in Tibetan areas.

Shortly after his footage was smuggled overseas to Switzerland, Wangchen disappeared into Chinese detention in March 2008 along with his helper Jigme Gyatso. Knowledge of his whereabouts came only after Jigme, a monk who helped shoot the film, was released from jail. On Mr. Jigme’s release in October 2008, he said that they had both undergone severe interrogations and torture in detention that included electric shock. Jigme has been rearrested since his release.

An edited version of Leaving Fear Behind was shown to foreign journalists in Beijing just days before the Olympic Games in August 2008. Chinese security forces interrupted the screening. In June 2009, Dhondup was charged with “inciting separatism”. He was tried in secret, found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison.  According to Amnesty International he contracted Hepatitis B while in prison for which he has not received any medical treatment, according to Films For Tibet. In January 2010, he was denied appeal.

He begins his film by saying, “I am not an educated man. I have never been to school. However, I would like to say a few things. What I would like to talk about comes from a discussion a few of us had a few months ago. What we were discussing was that before the 2008 Olympic Games are going to be held in China we should gather information about whether Tibetans in Tibet agree with the games and their views on them.”

Lhamo Tso, wife of imprisoned Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen campaigns for her husband’s release on April 27th 2012. Photo courtesy Nick Gulotta.

Dhondup knew the risks he was taking and bravely carried out his work anyway to show Tibetan life under Chinese rule. He moved his wife, Lhamo Tso, and four children to India to protect them in case he was arrested. He chose to interview Tibetans on camera because he felt their voices should be part of the conversation leading up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — regardless of the personal cost.

CPJ is honoring Dhondup Wangchen with a 2012 International Press Freedom Award because they believe he should not have to pay that terrible price. The organization hopes that the recognition that comes with this honor will show China that all charges against Dhondup Wangchen should be unconditionally dropped. “Filming a documentary is not a crime. Wangchen should be released from prison immediately,’’ said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.

The awards are an annual recognition of courageous reporting. “We are inspired by these journalists who have paid a high price for their enduring dedication to the truth,” said Mr. Simon. “Two — Azimjon Askarov and Dhondup Wangchen — have actually been arrested and jailed for their critical reporting. We will not rest until they are free.”

All of the winners have faced severe reprisals for their work, including assault, threats, and torture; they will be honored at CPJ’s annual awards dinner in New York City on November 20th 2012.

You can watch ‘’Leaving Fear Behind’’ below and sign the online petition for Dhondup’s release here.


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