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The international community should protest the imprisonment and secret sentencing of Paljor Norbu, an 81-year-old Tibetan traditional printer, and seek his immediate exoneration and unconditional release, Human Rights Watch said yesterday.

According to HRW, Norbu was taken by the police from his home in Lhasa on October 31, 2008, on suspicion that he had printed “prohibited material,” including the banned Tibetan flag. During his detention, judicial authorities refused to inform his relatives that he was being detained, or to reveal the charges against him, HRW said on its website. “He was tried in secret in November and sentenced to seven years in prison. A letter informing his family of the sentence was then hand-delivered to them. His current whereabouts are unknown.”

“Just about any material on Tibet that lacks the Chinese Communist Party’s explicit blessing is ‘prohibited material,’” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But no one should be jailed for printing flags, books, or pictures just because a government would prefer to suppress those ideas – that’s why freedom of expression is a basic right.”

Although the authorities have not made public the details of the verdict, the nature of the initial accusations leveled against Norbu and the length of the sentence suggest that he was tried on charges of “inciting separatism” (article 103 of the Criminal Law). This vaguely defined crime has been used repeatedly to silence Tibetans resisting the tight and often arbitrary limits imposed on their freedom of expression by Chinese law, said Richardson.

A descendant of a family with a long history of printing and publishing Buddhist texts for monasteries, Norbu is an internationally renowned master printer. He used both modern and traditional woodblock printing techniques in his workshop, which employed several dozen workers. In addition to religious texts, the shop printed prayer flags, folk reproductions, books, leaflets, and traditional literature.

After Norbu’s arrest, the police closed his shop, affixed notices of official closure on the door, and prohibited employees from returning. The police also confiscated books and woodblocks from the shop’s collection.

“Instead of persecuting Paljor Norbu, the Chinese government should prize his contributions toward historical and cultural preservation,” said Richardson.

Human Rights Watch said that Norbu was not granted even the minimal rights that are supposed to be provided under Chinese criminal procedures. Violations included the failure to notify his family of his formal arrest or of the trial date; the refusal to reveal where he was detained; the failure to allow him defense representation of his choice in court; the failure to communicate the full verdict of the trial; and, the refusal to inform the family of his current whereabouts and of where he will serve his prison term.

Human Rights Watch said it has observed an increase in the number of arrests and convictions related to exercising the freedom of expression in recent weeks, indicating that the crackdown that Chinese authorities threatened after Tibetan protests in March 2008 was extending beyond the people suspected of involvement in those demonstrations. Other recent cases include:

· Jigme Gyatso (lay name Jigme Guri), a senior monk from the Labrang monastery, who was re-arrested on November 4 after he described how he had been tortured by the police during his detention in March and who is now in custody in Lanzhou (Gansu province);

· Norzin Wangmo (Chinese name: Longzhen Wangmu [龙真旺姆]), an employee of the Judicial Bureau of Hongyuan county (Sichuan province), sentenced on November 3 to five years of imprisonment after he told relatives abroad of the situation in Tibet; and

· Dhondup Wangchen, who had been detained in March in Tong De (Qinghai province), for his role in filming a clandestine documentary in the Tibetan areas. He is being held in the Ershilipu detention center in Xining.

“The Chinese government will almost certainly say that the charges brought against Paljor Norbu were ‘in accordance with the law,’” said Richardson. “But, by definition, those laws restrict free speech, and until the government brings its laws into conformity with international human rights norms, we will continue to see peaceful critics like Norbu incarcerated for alleged ‘separatism.’”

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A Tibetan female cadre in her thirties has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Walza Norzin Wangmo, mother of one, from Kyungchu township of Ngaba, was accused of passing on information through phone and internet about the situation in Tibet, according to a report by Washington D.C based International Campaign for Tibet. However, the ICT said the exact details of the charges against her are not known.

A friend of Norzin wrote after knowing about the latter’s imprisonment, “…To have to spend the best years of your life in a dark prison cell, what misery! That may be your glory, but as you know, an ocean of inexpressible suffering lies behind that accolade of glory. There is no certainty that the experience will not write the final word on your youth and affection, your dreams and ambitions. One thing that makes me happy is that they say you kept your confidence and attitude together while in prison. That is a great reassurance to me, for one. Dear friend!”

Read more here: “Letters to Norzin Wangmo by Jamyang Kyi

 

In another incident on October 31 a Tibetan man named Paljor Norbu, 81, was arrested by People’s Armed Police in Lhasa, reports ICT citing sources in exile. According to another source, Paljor Norbu, who has been in prison before, may have been sentenced to seven years, and his whereabouts is unknown.

Paljor Norbu runs a family printing business in the Barkhor, which has printed and published Buddhist texts for monasteries for some generations. The business has now been shut down by the Public Security Bureau, which also took many of the wooden printing blocks. This indicates that he is not accused of involvement in any protests from March 10 onwards in Lhasa, but possibly in providing publications. The same source said: “The family wants to know what prison he is in because it is getting cold, he is very old, and they want to get warm clothes and blankets to him.”