The tragedy of Tek Nath Rizal

How can someone without a country commit treason?

There was silence in the chamber of the Kathmandu District Court as Bhutan’s refugee leader Tek Nath Rizal started to speak. He began in a soft and measured voice, recounting his struggle for freedom and citizenship for which he was hounded, persecuted, tortured and imprisoned in Bhutan.

His  voice rose as he protested his arrest on complicity in recommending  Nepalis to obtain fake refugee papers for resettlement in the United  States. Looking behind him at over a dozen accused, including two former  ministers, a government secretary, recruiters and their accomplices, he  said: “These are the crooks who have insulted us Bhutanese refugees,  these senior government officials are solely responsible for the crime  that has brought them here.”

Former minister and deputy prime  minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, who defected from the Maoist-Centre to  the UML, former NC home minister Bal Krishna Khand and secretary Tek  Narayan Pandey and others listened expressionless.

Rizal then  turned to the judge, pounded the rostrum with his fist, and thundered:  “I cannot take such humiliation anymore, how can these scoundrels extort  Nepalis in the name of resolving the issue of 6,000 remaining refugees  from Bhutan?”

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A  few days later on 20 June, the District Court ordered Rizal, Rayamajhi,  Khand and 13 others into judicial custody. Twelve more accused are  still at large in a scam that involved extorting up to Rs5 million each  from 875 Nepalis to make fake refugee documents, and tricking them into  thinking that the resettlement program had been reopened. 

Rizal  was arrested after police found evidence that one of the accused  recruiters had paid Rizal Rs700,000. And in a deposition before the  government attorney, Rizal is said to have told Minister Rayamajhi in  2019 that he was not concerned about fake Bhutan refugees being  resettled as long as the welfare of genuine refugees was addressed.

Tek  Nath Rizal is a leading Bhutanese pro-democracy leader and was an  Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience who spent nearly 10 years  in jail in Bhutan. Rizal used to be a royal counsel and head of Bhutan’s  anti-corruption bureau, but was targeted by the regime for speaking out  against persecution of the country’s Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa people.

Fearing  arrest, Rizal fled to Nepal in 1988 but was arrested kidnap-style by  the Panchayat regime and deported to Bhutan after which he was mostly in  solitary confinement in the notorious Chemgang Prison being physically  and mentally tortured for 10 years. Rizal has documented much of this in  his 2010 book, Torture: Killing Me Softly.

An investigative story by Devendra Bhattarai published in this paper in 2021  listed other prisoners, many of whom had served decades in jail in  Chemgang without visits by the ICRC. One of them, who had been released,  brought out a photograph of the jail cell in which Rizal had etched  into the cement wall the sacred Hindu Gayatri Mantra. 

Tek nath rizal gayatri mantra
A photograph of the jail cell in which Rizal had etched into the cement wall the sacred Hindu Gayatri Mantra.

It was Bhattarai’s story  in March that first exposed the story of hundreds of Nepalis who had  been duped by recruiters into paying them large sums in return for fake  refugee documents. The recruiters were arrested, and soon started  singing to the police and implicating senior government officials who  were given a cut from the extortion racket. 

It is hard to  believe that someone with Rizal’s history of struggle would have been  involved in helping Nepalis get fake citizenship papers. Rizal is said  to have admitted to police that he did indeed borrow Rs700,000 from one  of the recruiters, but for some other purpose and that he had returned  the money. 

Another accused has told police he paid Rizal Rs1.1  million to sign off on the citizenship of 34 fake refugees. Rizal has  admitted to signing some of the citizenship papers when Rayamajhi asked  him to, and indeed, many of the fake Bhutan citizenship papers are said  to be from Rizal’s constituency of Lamidanda. 

In a deposition to  the police, Minister Rayamajhi is said to have taken Rizal to meet  Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoists and Sher Bahadur Deuba of the NC when  they were prime ministers. Rizal told the court his purpose in meeting  them was to warn them of the fake refugee scam, and also to reinstate  the Rs100,000 monthly allowance that had been suspended. 

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From  what we have heard of the evidence presented to police so far, it looks  like the kingpins used Rizal’s credibility and respect in the refugee  community to convince fake refugees that the scheme had official  sanction. It may also be that Rizal signed the papers in return for  fulfilment of his demands for reunion of family members.

There is  also the question within Nepal of whether the really big fish have been  caught. There is said to be evidence of the three top leaders of the  parties instructing police to just investigate those caught so far, and  not go further up the food chain. 

“I stayed behind in Nepal even  though most refugees have been resettled because I wanted to either go  back to my homeland, or be a refugee in the land of my ancestors,” Rizal  told the court. 

Whatever the final verdict in Rizal’s case, it  has done irreparable harm to the Nepali state, bureaucracy and the  Bhutan refugee leadership. The only entity to gain from this sordid tale  is the Bhutan regime that 30 years ago evicted one-sixth of its  population. 

Rizal, who spent 10 years in prison in Bhutan, faces the tragic prospect of more jail time in Nepal.