Student activists help to free Chinese prisoner

Posted 11:13 a.m. Feb. 4

By Seth Goldman

U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Student activism led to the release of Ngawang Choephel this month, a former Middlebury College student imprisoned for more than 6 years in Chinese prison on charges of espionage and stealing state secrets, according to activists involved in the case.

“Individual students and student groups have been an incredibly potent force in building awareness and getting their voices heard,” said Evan Field, communications coordinator for International Campaign for Tibet.

Chinese authorities arrested Choephel in 1995 only a few months after he traveled to Tibet to record and videotape traditional Tibetan culture. The native Tibetan had been studying in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.

More than a year after he was detained, Choephel was charged with espionage and sentenced to 18 years of hard labor.

Choephel’s release comes just one month before President George W. Bush’s first scheduled state visit to China Feb. 21-22. Recent reports have placed Choephel’s release as a goodwill gesture by the Chinese government to appease U.S. officials critical of China’s human rights record.

John Hocevar, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said, “putting enough pressure on the State Department to consider him one of their priorities” was their biggest success.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell raised concerns about Choephel’s imprisonment with Chinese government officials during a July visit. Choephel was also on a “list of concerns” U.S. officials presented to Beijing prior to Powell’s arrival in China.

“The president may not hear (students),” said Field, “but hears them through messages of influence.” When students protest, Field said, advocacy organizations such as ICT and lawmakers lobby on their behalf.

Neither college students nor human rights organizations are afraid that American students studying abroad are at risk for long-term detainment in China or other nations.

Citizens of Western countries “tend to be detained briefly and deported quickly,” Hocevar said. However, “shouting Free Tibet in public will get (Tibetans and Chinese) disappeared and tortured,” said Hocevar. “Fortunately, we’ve never seen anything like that for outsiders.”

Samantha Siegel, a George Washington University sophomore said Choephel’s imprisonment doesn’t make her nervous. Siegel, who said she plans on studying abroad in Israel, England or France said, “I’m not worried because I’m an American citizen.”

Other students who have studied abroad, however, say students should be weary of anti-American sentiment and educated about the laws in countries they visit.

“I think the best defense is to be informed about the laws of other countries,” said Sherine Mahmoud, a GW senior who studied in Morocco and France. “A lot of countries love Americans,” she said, adding that students should still “be aware of anti-American sentiment.”

Lisa de Saxe, president of the GW chapter of Students for a Free Tibet for the past two years, said Choephel’s release is proof that students can make a difference.

“Through one prisoner being released it shows us that victory is possible and that change is possible,” de Saxe said. “When people take a collective stand against something there are positive results.”

“Students got together and got this guy out of prison,” Hocevar said. “This is unprecedented. Tibetan prisoners do not get released. It just doesn’t happen.”

The Chinese government released Choephel on a previously unannounced 1990 provision that allows prisoners who have served one-third of their sentence and become ill to be released on medical parole. While in prison, Choephel contracted bronchitis, hepatitis and a pulmonary infection.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.