(New York, NY) — PEN America today celebrates the release of Tibetan language rights advocate Tashi Wangchuk, who had been serving a five-year sentence for “inciting separatism” in connection with his advocacy. Tashi’s lawyer has shared reports that he was released on Thursday and is in good health, though the lawyer cautioned that he could not verify if Tashi was “fully free.” Tashi will still be subject to a five-year deprivation of political rights; it is expected he will remain under government surveillance.  

“We’re overjoyed to learn that Tashi has been released from a prison sentence he should never have served in the first place,” said James Tager, director of research at PEN America. “Tashi unjustly served years behind bars, simply for advocating for Tibetan language rights, in particular its use in schools and local government offices in Tibetan-speaking areas. For this, he was treated as a criminal. But speaking one’s own language is no crime, and neither is peacefully advocating for its use. On the occasion of Tashi’s release, we call upon the Chinese authorities to lift all remaining restrictions on him, and to stop the criminalization of language defenders.”

An entrepreneur and advocate for Tibetan language rights, Tashi is from Yushu prefecture, an area outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region but which is predominantly populated by Tibetans. In November 2015, Tashi appeared in a New York Times video and print report on the state of Tibetan language rights. In January 2016, Tashi was secretly detained. His family was only informed of his detention in March of that year, with officials reportedly charging him that month with “inciting separatism.” Tashi spent almost two years in pre-trial detention, with only limited access to his lawyer, and there are allegations that he was tortured during that time.

Tashi received a one-day trial on January 4, 2018, and reports indicate that his interviews with The New York Times were used as evidence against him. On May 22, 2018, Tashi was found guilty of inciting separatism and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Numerous UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur for human rights defenders and the special rapporteur for freedom of expression, have expressed grave concerns over the conviction, and over how Chinese authorities have handled the case.

In January 2020, PEN America released an open letter calling for Tashi’s release. The letter was signed by some 1,000 writers and linguists, and was co-signed by linguistic associations including the Modern Language Association, the Linguistic Society of America, and the Canadian Linguistic Association.

Tashi’s arrest and conviction is part of a broader campaign of Chinese governmental hostility to minority language rights, a hostility that belies both international law and China’s own constitutional and legal guarantees for ethnic minorities. In the past months and years, government officials have rolled back minority language instruction for Tibetans, Mongolians, Uyghurs, and other ethnic minorities. 

In 2019, PEN America ranked China the world’s worst jailer of writers and public intellectuals.