China has released noted Tibetan political prisoner Jigme Gyatso after 17 years in prison on charges of endangering national security and separatism, an overseas Tibetan spokesman and US-backed broadcaster said on Tuesday.
The 52-year old former monk has returned to his hometown in an ethnic Tibetan area in the northwest province of Gansu, according to Tashi Phuntsok, spokesman for the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile in India. He said Jigme Gyatso had been released about one year early, likely because of poor health due to harsh treatment in prison.
Radio Free Asia also reported the release, saying he appeared "very weak" upon returning home yesterday after being released two days earlier from Chusul prison near Tibet's regional capital Lhasa, where many political prisoners are held. It said friends reported him as walking with a limp and complaining of problems with his heart and vision and other physical complaints related to poor nutrition or lack of medical treatment.
It was not immediately possible to confirm Jigme Gyatso's release. Chusul prison has no listed phone number and government and police officials in Lhasa said they had no information on the case. Tibet remains off-limits to foreign reporters without special permission.
Jigme Gyatso was among Tibet's better-known political prisoners, with numerous organisations including Amnesty International and the European Union calling for his release.
Arrested during a crackdown on dissent in 1996, he was sentenced to 15 years on charges of "inciting splittism" and the now-abolished crime of "counter-revolution." Initially held at Lhasa's notorious Drapchi prison, he was among a group of prisoners who were reportedly beaten and tortured following a pro-independence protest in 1998 coinciding with a visit by European Union delegates.
His sentence was then extended by three years in 2004 after he shouted slogans in prison in support of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. China says Tibet has been its territory for centuries, while many Tibetans say theirs was an independent state.
China has used overwhelming force to crush successive waves of anti-government activism among Tibetans, the latest in 2008 when bloody rioting in Lhasa sparked a wave of protests across Tibetan regions. The fate of many of those detained remains unknown, while numerous Tibetans arrested earlier on state security charges continue to serve long sentences.