Members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile are calling international attention to the case of long-imprisoned dissident Lodoe Gyamtso, who with a new sentence announced this week stands to become the longest-serving political prisoner since the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951.
Gyamtso, 57, also known as Sogkhar Lodoe Gyamtso, had already served a total of 23 years in prison for two previous convictions before receiving the latest 18-year sentence following his arrest while protesting in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa last year. His wife, Gakyi, was sentenced to two years, according to Tibetan exile groups.
If Gyamtso's latest sentence is officially confirmed and he serves the full length, he will have served a total of 41 years in prison, making him not only the longest serving known Tibetan political prisoner, but the longest-serving political prisoner anywhere, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
News of the sentence was published Wednesday on the website of the Tibetan government-in-exile, known as the Central Tibetan Administration. Some members of the Tibetan parliament called during a session in Dharamsala on Tuesday for exile Tibetan communities to prioritize Gyamtso's case and bring it to the international stage.
'He is someone local people praise as a hero and all Tibetans have a great reverence for him,' said MP Atrug Tseten, speaking in Tibetan at the parliament session. 'He is someone who has staged many protests, and the Chinese have arrested him twice before. He went all the way to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and declared that he was going to carry out his world peace campaign for the rest of his life.'
Gyamtso completed his first 21-year sentence in 2013 and was released from Drapchi Prison in Lhasa. Two years later, he was arrested again after protesting a Chinese government order requiring Tibetans to wear tiger and leopard skins during an official military ceremony in Nagchu prefecture. The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, had urged a halt to the wearing of wild animal skins years earlier.
The dissident, a native of Sog County, Nagchu prefecture, served two years in prison on that conviction, according to Ngawang Tharpa, a fellow Sog County native and member of the Tibetan exile parliament.
Shortly before his Potala Palace protest last year, Gyamtso posted a video message on social media in which he declared he was launching a 'World Peace Movement.'
'Hundreds of our heroes, including martyr Thubten Ngundrup, have self-immolated for the world peace,' he said, wearing a white robe, or chupa, intended to symbolize innocence. 'I, too, for over 20 years made effort for the world peace. Today on Jan. 28, 2018, I am going to start [again] my world peace movement.'
Later that day, Gyamtso publicly protested Chinese rule of Tibet in front of the Potola Palace, the former seat of the Tibetan government and the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas. Human rights groups reported him missing from that day, but later said that he had been taken to Sog County Prison.
The Center for Tibetan Democracy and Human Rights, a Dharamsala-based human rights group, reported March 15 that Gyamtso and his wife had been 'secretly' sentenced. Three members of the Tibetan parliament-in-exile said that extreme security restrictions in Sog County and the surrounding regions made it very difficult to get detailed information.
These regions 'are the most restricted areas [in Tibet],' said Lobsang Dragpa, a Tibetan exile MP. 'The entire regions of Tibet's three cholkhas [provinces] are under restriction, and particularly these [two] regions are especially under heavy restriction.'
Gyamtso was initially detained on a homicide charge after he killed a man named Gayu in what he claimed was self-defense. While in prison in 1995, Gyamtso led a prison protest against Chinese rule over Tibet in notorious Drapchi Prison. According to Free Tibet, a London-based Tibetan advocate group, he distributed 300 handwritten letters and shouted pro-Tibet slogans.
As a result, he faced torture and was sentenced for execution, according to exile groups. After U.N. intervention on his behalf, the death sentence was commuted to 18 years.
VOA has reached out to the Chinese Embassy in Washington for a comment but did not get a response.