Bhutan king must free political prisoners

Human rights groups urge monarch to free prisoners of Nepali descent languishing in jail for decades

Bhutan Refugee Camp in Beldangi-2 in Jhapa district, Nepal

Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck must release Nepali-speaking political prisoners imprisoned for decades for ‘offences against the king, country and people’, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

At least 37 prisoners have been detained in Bhutan for decades, with the longest-serving prisoner having been sentenced to life in 1990. 

32 of the detainees are Nepali speakers from the Lhotshampa community and were arrested following accusations of opposing discrimination and human rights violations against the Nepali-speaking community.  Meanwhile, five prisoners are from the Sharchop community, jailed for their alleged ties to the Druk National Congress party formed in Nepal in 1994 by exiled Bhutanese pro-democracy figures.

Amnesty International’s South Asia director Dinushika Dissanayake said that the continued detention of the political prisoners was antithetical to the image of an enlightened and happy kingdom that Bhutan had cultivated globally. 

“Under Bhutan’s constitution, only King Jigme has the power to grant early release and he should do so without further delay, to end the suffering of these prisoners and their families,” said Dissanayake ahead of King Jigme Khesar’s visit to London to attend the coronation of King Charles III. 

Read also: Political prisoners languish in Bhutan’s jails, Devendra Bhattarai

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan. Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Indeed, Bhutan’s constitution allows for its monarch to grant kidu (relief) as well as amnesty, pardon and reduction of sentences. In 1999, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King Jigme Khesar’s father and predecessor, granted amnesty to 40 political prisoners. 

King Jigme Khesar was born in Nepal and became Bhutan’s monarch at 26 years old in 2006. Last year, he granted amnesty to another prisoner who had been serving a life sentence.

Many of the prisoners— who are serving life without parole— were denied due process including their right to legal representation, and were not allowed visits from loved ones. 

Moreover, former prisoners as well as their family members have recounted prisoners being subjected to torture during their arrest and subsequent trial. They add that prisoners are forced to serve out their sentences without adequate food or accommodation to withstand extreme temperatures.

“They [Bhutanese soldiers] arrested us … and for 20 days they treated us mercilessly,” one prisoner recounted to Human Rights Watch. “After that, they prepared a statement as per their own wish and thoughts, not based on what we said.”

Read also: Bhutan’s refugees between hope and despair, Tek Nath Rizal

Former Bhutanese prisoners
Butanese citizens who were formerly incarcerated at the Chemgang Prison near Thimpu. At least 37 more political prisoners are serving life sentences in Bhutan.

The prisoners gave their own written statements to a judge upon questioning once they were presented before the district court, but their submissions were disregarded in favour of the ones falsified by the Bhutanese military, the prisoner added.

The sister of another prisoner— who has been jailed since 2008— said that her brother was beaten and burned regularly. “When I met him, he was very sad, his eyes were full of tears,” she said.

The Bhutan government evicted some 100,000 of Bhutan’s Nepali-speaking citizens in 1991 following the escalation of protests against the Bhutan government’s discriminatory policies in late 1989. Many were subsequently arrested by the Bhutanese authorities when they went back to see relatives left behind.

Most of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal were resettled in the US, Netherlands, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and other Western countries. But more than 6,000 Bhutan refugees still remain in Nepal’s refugee camps—some because they want to ultimately return to their homeland, others because they do not have proper documentation and those who were absent from the camps during a refugee census.

Experts from the UN in 2019 concluded that although some of the prisoners had been convicted of terrorism, the accusations levelled against them seemed to be unrelated to the charges. The experts added that the prisoners had no possibility of being released unless they were pardoned, recommending for their cases be reviewed for any violations of due process.

Said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch: “Bhutan has undergone democratic reforms and made efforts to modernize its legal system since 2008, but these political prisoners received unfair trials that condemned them to spend their lives in prison. The king should close this chapter, show compassion, and free these prisoners now.”

Read also: Elderly left in Bhutan refugee camp

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