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China Opens Door to Tibet in Hopes of Improving Image - 2002-10-09

Chinese officials say they are fed up with criticism of their rule in Tibet and are working to improve their international image. As part of that effort, journalists were invited to visit the prison where many of Tibet's political prisoners are held for decades at a time.

Drapchi Prison here in Lhasa, Tibet, holds 900 inmates, including a hundred convicted of "undermining state security," usually by peaceful protest. About 60 of these prisoners are Buddhist nuns or monks.

The Chinese-run government of the Tibet Autonomous Region considers criticism of Beijing's rule of Tibet or support for independence to be crimes. And human rights groups say the government suppresses all kinds of free expression.

Buddhist nun Ngawang Sangdrol is a Drapchi inmate who Tibetan exile groups cite as an example of the government's brutal approach to peaceful dissent.

She was sent to prison for three years for supporting Tibetan independence, and Prison Chief Lu Bo says she committed further serious crimes in jail, by singing songs.

Lu Bo says the nun recorded "counterrevolutionary" songs, chanted slogans that attacked the Chinese-dominated government of Tibet and disturbed prison order. Her sentence was extended again and again until three years became nearly two decades.

Drapchi's warden guides foreign journalists on a tightly-controlled visit to a small area of the prison.

The prison's bunk rooms resemble Chinese military barracks, right down to the neat way the blankets are folded and the washbasins lined up as if on parade.

Visitors see only a few dozen prisoners, all of them gathered in one room, all wearing identical blue uniforms, with white stripes on the shoulders. They are seated on small stools, lined up in neat rows, absolutely still, utterly silent, watching TV.

Prison keepers later show off workshops for making rugs, as well as a library and classroom. Prison officials say these facilities contribute to the prison's fair and humane atmosphere.

But former prisoners like independence supporter Takna Jigme Sangpo, tell a far different story, saying authorities use chains and torture to subdue inmates.

The 74-year-old Takna Jigme Sangpo told Reuters Television, jailers in Tibet chained his arms and neck and tightened them till his arms were swollen. They also chained his feet together and attached them to a log and beat him. He was held for 37 years and showed interviewers several scars from his experiences.

Tibetan exile groups say dozens of prisoners have died due to abuse in various prisons in Tibet.

Prison chief Lu Bo says any deaths in his prison are due to natural causes, not abuse. And he denies his officers use beatings or solitary confinement to punish prisoners.

Tibetan scholar Robert Barnett, at New York's Columbia University, says China's harsh treatment of Tibetans may be driven by the fear that the slightest relaxation of rule in Tibet might encourage other independence-minded groups to break away from China.

He says the Muslim Uighurs, who live in a nearby region of China, are a particular concern for Beijing. "The Chinese think that it is like a domino theory, that if Tibet goes, everywhere could go. All western areas of China could go. So they have this very strong fear that all the state could crumble, that they could lose 60 percent of their land mass if these non-Chinese peoples begin to separate from the motherland," Mr. Barnett said.

Chinese troops took control of Tibet half a centuryago and Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in 1959 after a failed uprising against rule from Beijing.

The Dalai Lama set up a government-in-exile in India, and won the Nobel Peace prize for his non-violent struggle against Chinese rule. Beijing is so concerned that the popular spiritual leader might lead Tibet away from Chinese rule that it is against the rules for Tibetans to even display his picture.

Back in the prison, officials try to complete their picture of a progressive, humane institution by taking visitors to hear a group of inmates belting out rock tunes on guitars and drums. The band is called "New Life," but you can't hear their songs in this report because the prison bans photography and recordings inside the tall white walls.