Dhondup Wangchen escapes China

A Tibetan activist and filmmaker has been granted political asylum in the United States, after an “arduous and risky escape” from China, sparking cheers from Democratic politicians at his arrival.

Dhondup Wangchen was jailed a decade ago over a film interviewing Tibetans about their lives in a country where the government views them with constant suspicion. His film was smuggled out of China in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and he was later convicted of subversion in China’s Communist party controlled courts.

The 43-year-old arrived in the US on 25 December, joining his wife and children, according to Filming for Tibet, a group set up to advocate for his release.

“After many years, this is the first time I’m enjoying the feeling of safety and freedom,” Wangchen said in a statement. “I would like to thank everyone who made it possible for me to hold my wife and children in my arms again. However, I also feel the pain of having left behind my country, Tibet.”

Democratic party leaders in the US were quick to welcome the self-taught filmmaker. His family was granted asylum in 2012.

“It is my honor to welcome Tibetan filmmaker & former Chinese political prisoner Dhondup Wangchen to our San Francisco community,” Nancy Pelosi wrote on Twitter. “My thoughts are with him as he is once again united with his wife & children in freedom after so many years.”

Many Tibetans complain about life under Chinese rule, saying there are restrictions on religion, expression and travel. More than 160 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze since 2009 in protest, an act that the Chinese government brands as “terrorism”.

Wangchen’s case was a “priority” for the US government, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, which said his case was raised “with the Chinese government at the highest level”.

Rights groups decried his treatment during his six year prison sentence, with Amnesty International saying he was not properly treated for hepatitis B and was held in solitary confinement for months.

After his release he was placed under close watch by police and his communications were monitored, according to Filming for Tibet. The group did not give details of his escape.