musician sentenced to 18 years

After  15 months of detention without charge, Ngawang Choephel, a 30 year old Tibetan musician and scholar, has been sentenced to 18 years prison and four years deprivation of political rights after visiting Tibet to research traditional musical customs.

Sonam dekyi carried her two year-old son Ngawang on her back over the Himalayas and out of Tibet at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Ngawang’s  father was to follow but when he later tried to escape he was arrested and tortured by Chinese authorities. It is not known today whether he is alive or dead.

Ngawang learnt the art of music in his childhood in the Mundgod Tibetan settlement, camp no.2 in southern India. After finishing high school he studied traditional Tibetan folk music, song and dance at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamshala in northern India where he was recognized as an outstanding student.

Ngawang Choephel completed his diploma in 1988 and after graduation taught music at Tibetan schools in Mundgod and Bylakuppe settlements.

In August 1993 Ngawang went to the USA on a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study and teach ethnomusicology at Middlebury College in Vermont. One of his primary goals was to learn Western musical notation so that he could preserve Tibet’s musical heritage in a form accessible to a general audience. Another aim was to make a video of traditional Tibetan music to be used as the educational tool.

Ngawang returned to India in October 1994 and in July 1995 he left for Tibet. During the early part of his trip Ngawang travelled with Kathryn Culley, an American photographer, who assisted him in his documentation.

Before she left Tibet on 22 August, Kathryn was told by Ngawang that he planned to visit Shigatse to look for musicians before returning to India in November or December. Ngawang was also planning to travel to the west of Tibet in the hope of finding his father.

Ngawang first reported missing in August 1995. It was not until 15 October 1996, more than a year after his arrest, that the Chinese authorities finally admitted to his detention.

Mr. Shao Wenguang, the counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. said that Ngawang had been detained on charges of spying for the exile government of the Dalai Lama and was suspected of violating article 4, section 2(5), of the Chinese State Security Law. He claimed that the “judicial department of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is handling his case according to law.”

As a precaution, Ngawang periodically sent completed footage to Kathmandu. Of the 16 hours of filmed traditional song and dance, there was not a single scene indicating that Ngawang was involved in any political activity. The footage confirmed what Ngaawang had said in correspondence and a sponsor submission- that his intention of visiting his homeland was the peaceful documentation of the Tibetan people’s cultural  heritage.

On 16 September 1995, Tibetan businessman Dorjee Rinchen was imprisoned in Nyari Detention Centre in Shigatse. Saw Ngawang Choephel being brought in. Ngawang told Dorjee about his musical research and that he had been detained from the marketplace in Shigatse. He asked Dorjee to tell his mother not to worry about him. One evening Ngawang, still strong in spirit, sang for the other prisoners in Nyari.

In September 1996 Ngawang was reportedly transferred to Lhasa and on 16 October 1996 to Sangyip Prison.

On 26 December 1996, the Tibet People’s Broadcasting Station in Lhasa, monitored by the BBC, announced, “In accordance with the Criminal Law of the PRC, and Security Law of the PRC, and the Implementing Regulations of the State Security Law of the PRC, the Intermediate People’s Court of Xigaze (Tibetan:Shigatse) Prefecture sentenced Ngawang Chopjel to an 18 year prison term for committing espionage crime, with a four year deprivation of political rights.”

It was alleged in the official Chinese media that, “In July 1995, he was sent to Shigatse with money and spy equipment by the Dalai Lama clique, and in the name of collecting Tibetan folk dances, and songs, he went to Lhasa, Shannan, Linzhi and other places to collect information “for the Dalai Lama and an organization of “a certain foreign country” (previously confirmed as the USA).

According to the broadcast, Ngawang Choephel “confessed” to espionage activities. Yet there have ben numerous reports of torture being routinely employed by Chinese officials during interrogations as a means of obtaining confessions.

Ngawang choephel’s mother, Sonam Dekyi, a single parent to her only son, is in a state of severe shock after hearing the news of her son’s sentence. A few  months later, she had to be hospitalized over a month due to metal distress caused by her son’s  detention and today she continues to survive on medications in a fragile state of health.

We appeal to all friends of Tibet and people of the free world to take up the case of Ngawang Choephel and urge the PRC for his speedy release. His detention and sentence is a source of great concern for all Tibetans in exile who travel to Tibet each year to meet relatives or on pilgrimage.




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