No country for dissent

Freed political prisoner describes dire conditions in Bhutan jail, urging foreign governments to press for immediate release of others

A recently released political prisoner from Bhutan has revealed ghastly conditions that political imprisoners in Bhutan are subjected to including food shortages and inadequate medical care, urging foreign countries to press for the immediate release of those held in violation of their human rights.

Madhukar Monger was released in August 2023 after serving 29 years. At least 36 others including a woman are in Bhutan jails, convicted of political offenses following unfair trials that frequently relied on confessions coerced under torture.

“Bhutan’s government has sought to cultivate its global image by espousing ‘gross national happiness,’ but its treatment of political prisoners tells a different story,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck should exercise compassion and his sole authority to grant amnesty to these unjustly held prisoners and release them.”

Most of Bhutan’s political prisoners belong to the country’s marginalised Nepali-speaking community known as Lhotshampa and were convicted because of prohibited political activity between 1990 and 2008. 

Read also: Bhutan king must free political prisoners, Nepali Times

Some 90,000 of them were forced to leave the country as refugees. A majority of them ended up in refugee camps across eastern Nepal before they were eventually resettled in eight different countries with the United States taking a bulk of them.

Monger, now 57, fled Bhutan with his family in 1990 but returned to campaign on behalf of the banned Bhutan People’s Party. He was arrested and tortured by the army in February 1994. And at 26, he was sentenced to 31 years for “anti-government activities,” following a trial in which he had no defense lawyer. He was released a year early after paying a fine of $250.

Monger was held in a section of Chemgang prison near Thimpu, known as the “anti” block, short for “anti-national.” He said the authorities refer to the political prisoners as “rajbandi” and the guards address them as “traitors.”

Bhutanese law defines a “political prisoner” as “any person convicted for conspiring, attempting, soliciting, abetting or committing offenses against the Tsa-Wa-Sum (king, country, and people).” 

Many are serving life sentences without parole, and they are all denied contact with their families or the outside world, in violation of international standards. Bhutanese authorities have long denied the existence of these prisoners.

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

Monger describes the conditions for political prisoners as having declined drastically in recent years. He told Human Rights Watch that the authorities cut the monthly rice ration from 20kgs to 12, wheat flour from 6kgs to 1.5 and lentils from 3kgs to 2.

Prisoners do receive a small weekly allowance of fresh meat and vegetables but they were compelled to sell a portion to police and guards in order to buy medicine and clothes which the authorities did not provide. 

Monger further adds that at the time of his release, at least four prisoners in the “anti” block had serious health problems, including one who received back surgery twice for a condition that the prisoners believe resulted from torture, and three who are regularly hospitalised for chronic conditions.

The neglect has gotten worse since the Covid-19 pandemic, Monger says. Prisoners have not received new bedding or clothing since the coronavirus outbreak, and Chemgang is cold much of the year. Families do not get to visit then. Phone calls and letters too are prohibited. 

Read also: Gross National Reconciliation in Bhutan, Suraj Budathoki

Following a Human Rights Watch report in March identifying 37 political prisoners, most of them held at Chemgang but also at other prisons, government officials assured prisoners regularly that they would be “released soon,” according to Monger. However, none aside from Monger is known to have been released.

Under Bhutanese law, a person serving a life sentence can only be released if the king grants an amnesty. In 2022, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck granted amnesty to one political prisoner serving a life term. In contrast, his father King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1999 granted amnesty to 40 political prisoners, including some serving life sentences.

Monger is currently in a refugee camp in Nepal while his family has moved to the United States under a resettlement program for Bhutanese refugees. Governments of Nepal and the United States with the assistance of the United Nations Refugee Agency must assist him to rejoin his family.

“At least 36 people remain in prison for their alleged political activities seeking democratic choice, which Bhutan’s multiparty constitution has recognised since 2008,” says Meenakshi Ganguly. “The Bhutanese authorities should release these prisoners now and reunite them with their families.”

Read also: Real refugees want to go back to Bhutan, Sujata Dhungana

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