On June 17, 2002, Executive Director John Kamm met Takna Jigme Sangpo, who served one of the the longest prison terms for counterrevolution in China. The former elementary school teacher was detained in September 1983 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. His sentence was extended twice, by five years in 1988 and eight years in 1991, for joining demonstrations and shouting slogans while in prison.
Kamm began working on Sangpo’s case in the 1990s. In the wake of September 11, 2001, the Chinese government began seriously considering releasing political prisoners as a way to bolster Sino-US relations. Kamm took the initiative to propose the release of Jigme Sangpo, then age 72, to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The MFA initially countered that he did not want to leave prison, but after months of negotiations, the MFA granted medical parole. The ministry also agreed to allow Kamm to meet with Sangpo to ask him whether he wanted to seek medical treatment in the United States.
In Lhasa, Kamm first met with officials from the bureaus of prison administration, public security, state security, and foreign affairs. They told Kamm that after Sangpo completed his six-month medical parole, he would go back to prison.
The same afternoon, surrounded by security personnel, Sangpo received Kamm at his family’s home. The Tibetan elder used a cane to steady his slow gait and wore thick, black-rimmed glasses tipped downward for his cataracts. The two spoke for nearly half an hour. Sangpo described his medical problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, and a recent trembling in his hands and feet. He told Kamm that he would like to seek medical treatment in the United States, and Kamm promised to help. One month later, Sangpo arrived in Chicago, after serving 19 years of a 28-year sentence.
As the United States and China forged closer ties in the early 2000s, dozens of Tibetan prisoners like Jigme Sangpo were released. This period of clemency and good will came to an end in 2005, however, following the early release of prominent businesswoman and Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer. Living in exile in the United States, Kadeer continues to speak out and organize against China’s alleged persecution of Uyghurs.