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81-year-old Tibetan to Receive Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award

Friday 17 April 2009, by TW

Paljor Norbu, an eighty-one-year-old Tibetan printer and publisher from Lhasa, has been selected as the 2009 recipient of the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, the International Freedom to Publish Committee (IFTPC) announced Thursday.

Paljor Norbu was arrested by Chinese police from his home in Tibet’s capital Lhasa on 31 October last year, for allegedly printing “prohibited material,” including the banned Tibetan flag. He was tried in secret in November and sentenced to seven years in prison. His current whereabouts are unknown.

The IFTPC was founded in 1975 by the Association of American Publishers. It was one of the first groups in the world formed specifically to defend and broaden the freedom of the written word and to protect and promote the rights of book publishers and authors around the world.

The award, named in honour of Jeri Laber, recognizes a book publisher outside the United States that has demonstrated courage and fortitude in the face of political persecution and restrictions on freedom of expression. Laber was a founder of Helsinki Watch (which ultimately became Human Rights Watch), and was its executive director from 1979 to 1995. She is also the author of a memoir, ’The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement’.

The award will be officially presented on 28 April at the PEN Annual Gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

"China’s implacable efforts to subjugate a country, constrain a culture, and subvert freedom of expression are vividly illustrated by the prosecution of Paljor Norbu, who has for seven decades dedicated himself to the preservation of Tibetan culture through his work as a master printer," said Hal Fessenden, chair of the IFTPC, in announcing the award.

"The IFTPC deplores the violation of China’s own laws in Paljor Norbu’s case – the undefined charges, lack of counsel, secret sentencing, and the refusal to inform the family of his current whereabouts. We join the international community in saluting Paljor Norbu’s determination to protect an endangered culture through his commitment to the written and printed word and call for his exoneration and immediate release."

A descendant of a family with a long history of printing and publishing Buddhist texts for monasteries, Norbu is an internationally renowned master printer. He used both modern and traditional woodblock printing techniques in his workshop, which employed several dozen workers. In addition to religious texts, the shop printed prayer flags, folk reproductions, books, leaflets, and traditional literature.

One of a tiny group of specialist traditional printers, Paljor Norbu was born in Mongka kyang, in Nyemo Valley, a village southwest of Lhasa, and became an apprentice printer at age eleven. As an adult, in addition to his regular work as a printer in Lhasa for the Tibetan government, he worked with several prominent monasteries to print texts from wooden blocks, and supervised the printing of one set of the 224 volumes of the famous ’Narthang Tengyur’, one of the main editions of the commentaries on the Buddhist canon.

He was first arrested shortly after the uprising against the Chinese repression in Tibet in 1959, when he was the secretary of the printers’ guild working under the then Tibetan government’s supervision. In the sixties and seventies, the Cultural Revolution brought an assault on all traditional and cultural emblems of Tibetan civilization, including religious artifacts and religious texts. Woodblocks were burned, and the printing of anything other than strictly political texts was forbidden. In spite of this, wood-carvers secretly carved and hid a number of blocks. After Mao’s death, in 1976, Paljor Norbu was able to resume his work.

Subsequently, he was imprisoned at regular intervals in 1987, early 1990s, on suspicion of supporting protests or producing illicit literature, but he was released without charge each time.

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