Profile: New longest imprisoned female political prisoner

ngawang_sangdrolNgawang Sangdrol, a nineteen-year-old nun, has had her sentence extended by nine years. With a total of 18 years behind bars, she will be the longest imprisoned female political prisoner in Tibet.

Ngawang Sangdrol (layname Rigchog) was born in Lhasa in 1977, and later joined Garu Nunnery (5 kilometres north of Lhasa).

She was first arrested in 1987 when she was just ten years old for participating in a demonstration and was detained for 15 days.

She was next arrested in 1990, aged thirteen years, for her participation in a demonstration led by nuns in the Norbulingka (the former summer palace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama) in Lhasa on 28 August 1990. While Ngawang was considered too young to be tried, she was nevertheless detained for nine months and subjected to ill-treatment.

Upon release Ngawang was forbidden from rejoining her nunnery as a result of her status as a former political prisoner. On 12 June 1991 her father, Namgyal Tashi, was arrested for participating in demonstrations and sentenced to eight years in Drapchi Prison where he remains today. The death of Gyaltsen’s mother, Jampa Choezom, followed just days after her father was imprisoned. Gyaltsen’s brother, a monk named Tenzin Sherap, also received a 12 month prison sentence at one time for political reasons. After his release he was forbidden to rejoin his monastery.

On 17 June 1992 Gyaltsen was again arrested for attempting to stage a pro-independence demonstration in Lhasa along with other Garu nuns and some monks from Ganden monastery. Despite her youth, she was sentenced to three years imprisonment “for incitement to subversive and separatist activities”.

Whilst in Lhasa’s Drapchi Prison, Ngawang and thirteen other nuns made a recording on a tape-recorder smuggled into the prison and which was later secretly circulated in Tibet. Ngawang, along with each of the other nuns, announced their names and then dedicated a song or poem to friends and supporters. The words spoke of the heartfelt gratitude of the women for those who had not forgotten them in jail, of the beatings and brutal treatment suffered, and of their unfaltering commitment to Tibetan independence.

The fourteen nuns were tried on 8 October 1993, and Ngawang had her sentence extended for six years for “spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda”. Another of the nuns was Phuntsog Nyidron whose extension of eight years brought her total sentence to 17, and who in December 1995 received the Reebok Human Rights Award.

On 30 November 1995, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions ruled that the continuing detention of Ngawang Sangdrol was arbitrary because she had been punished for exercising her right to freedom of opinion. The group asked the PRC to remedy the situation so as to conform with the provisions and principles incorporated in the Universal Declaration if Human Rights.

Gyaltsen Pelsang, the youngest political prisoner in Tibet when she was detained at age 12 in 1993, was another of the nuns who recorded her songs of faith and perseverance.

Gyaltsen was released on 9 February 1996 and escaped from Tibet just in the last weeks. She last saw Ngawang four months ago, describing her as white and emaciated. Gyaltsen was also able to confirm that Ngawang had been re-sentenced and describe the incidents leading to her trial.

Ngawang Sangdrol was amongst a number of female prisoners who refused to tidy their beds or clean their cells, apparently as a protest against the Panchen Lama re-education campaign being conducted in the prison, and it was also reported that Ngawang on one occasion did not stand up when a Chinese official entered the room. As punishment for failing to clean their ceels, the women were sent to stand in the rain at which time Ngawang shouted “Free Tibet”. Soldiers were immediately called and Ngawang and three other nuns were badly beaten.

These events reportedly took place in March of this year, and Gyaltsen said that since that time Ngawang Sangdrol has been singled out for severe punishment. She said Ngawang’s condition had deteriorated due to severe torture and her right leg had been seriously injured. Ngawang was reportedly sentenced on 31 July 1996 and in the months preceding the trial was fed only one plain dumpling or bun per day and was manifesting signs of severe malnourishment.

Reports in August said that Ngawang was being held in a dark, windowless confinement cell at Drapchi Prison and receiving small amounts of food only twice daily.

Ngawang is due to be released in 2010 at the age of 33. Her physical condition at present is unknown. Ngawang has received each of her sentences simply for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of conscience and expression.

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