Relentless patience

April 03, 2003|By SUN STAFF

IN TIBET under China's boot, the abnormal appears normal. Take Drapchi prison, a notorious place where China locks up and tortures Tibetan political dissidents. It's tucked down a small street in an otherwise ordinary neighborhood in the region's capital, Lhasa. It wouldn't stand out save for the barbed wire atop its walls - sharp coils on which wind-borne Buddhist prayer flags tend to get snagged.

There, Ngawang Sangdrol, a nun believed to be China's longest-held female political prisoner, was sentenced in 1992 at age 15 for protesting Chinese rule - a sentence twice extended because of her protests in prison. Last fall, Ngawang Sangdrol was paroled early, and last week she was allowed to leave China to seek U.S. medical treatment.

The Tibetan nun had gained renown with a tape smuggled from Drapchi of her and 13 other imprisoned nuns singing their love of their homeland, and her release had been long sought by human-rights groups and the United States. Her departure from China is just the latest in a series of similar gestures over the last year or so, involving other Tibetan prisoners and a prominent Tiananmen Square protest leader, Xu Wenli.

In particular, it's a credit to John Kamm, an American who was once a businessman in Hong Kong and has evolved into a full-time human-rights activist. Mr. Kamm has spent more than a decade tracking China's political prisoners and gaining their releases by taking every opportunity to bring up their cases to Chinese officials. Over the years, his relentless efforts at patient dialogue have been skillful, saving lives.

But China's well-honed tactic of selectively releasing dissidents of interest to the United States - chits played at strategic junctures - has not fundamentally altered its oppression. China's jails still hold thousands of political and religious prisoners, including at least hundreds still languishing from the 1989 Tiananmen protests.

The U.S. State Department's annual international human-rights report, released this week, says that, despite some positive signs, China "continued to commit numerous and serious abuses. ... Authorities were quick to suppress religious, political and social groups, as well as individuals, that they perceived to be a threat. ... Abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy incommunicado detention, denial of due process."

And Tibet remained a particular focus of Chinese repression, the report says, with continuing reports of brutalities at Drapchi.

Even so, America's growing need for Chinese cooperation - in containing terrorism and North Korean nuclear ambitions - means the United States may depart from its usual practice of attempting to censure China at the United Nations' annual human-rights meeting now taking place in Geneva. Asked about this earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sounded noncommittal - like a man playing his own chit. Unfortunately, such trade-offs are hardly new for increasingly complex Sino-American relations, making even more critical the dogged work of independent activists such as Mr. Kamm.

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