China releases Tibetan activist who was sentenced to five years' jail

A volunteer holding a placard of Tashi Wangchuk in Beijing on June 4, 2017.
A volunteer holding a placard of Tashi Wangchuk in Beijing on June 4, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - A Tibetan activist sentenced to five years in prison by the Chinese authorities for "inciting separatism" after appearing in a New York Times documentary has been released from jail, his lawyer said on Friday (Jan 29).

Mr Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced in 2018 after prosecutors cited a short documentary about his work protecting his culture as evidence of his alleged incitement.

He had been taken into custody two years earlier.

The documentary followed Mr Tashi as he travelled to Beijing where he attempted to get Chinese state media and courts to address what he describes as the diminishing use of the Tibetan language.

His lawyer, Mr Liang Xiaojun, tweeted on Thursday that Mr Tashi had been escorted home by officials and was now with his sister's family in Yushu, Qinghai province, and was in good health, although Mr Liang was unsure if Mr Tashi was "fully free".

But Mr Liang told AFP on Friday that after an initial communication, he was now unable to reach Mr Tashi and his family, raising fears that he continues to be subjected to official restrictions.

Court and prison officials in Qinghai, a province with a large ethnic Tibetan population, declined to comment when contacted by AFP.

Beijing says it "peacefully liberated" Tibet in 1951 and insists it has brought development to a previously backward region.

But many Tibetans accuse it of exploiting the region's natural resources and encouraging an influx of the majority Han ethnic group, which critics say is diluting the native culture and Buddhist faith.

China's Constitution nominally protects free speech, but critics say it is a fig leaf for a hardline approach to any critical opinions of Beijing.

Rights groups have accused President Xi Jinping's government of an escalating crackdown on expression.

Anti-censorship group PEN American said on Thursday it was "overjoyed" to hear of Mr Tashi's release.

"Tashi unjustly served years behind bars, simply for advocating for Tibetan language rights," Mr James Tager, director of research at PEN, said in a statement.