Held for decades after torture, unfair trials in Bhutan

Top row: Lok Bahadur Ghaley; Rinzin Wangdi; Chandra Raj Rai; Kumar Gautam. Bottom row: San Man Gurung; Birkha Bdr Chhetri; Omnath Adhikari; Chaturman Tamang. Photo taken from the HRW

NL Today

  • Read Time 5 min.

New York: The Royal Government of Bhutan should quash the convictions of several dozen political prisoners who have been imprisoned for decades following unfair trials and alleged torture and release them, Human Rights Watch said today.

Bhutanese courts convicted and imposed long sentences on peaceful political and anti-discrimination activists and others arrested for a range of alleged national security offenses. The cases originate from before 2008, when Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. Those still imprisoned face long sentences, including life in prison. Bhutanese activists have appealed to King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to grant amnesty to these prisoners.

“Bhutan’s publicly promoted principle of ‘Gross National Happiness’ doesn’t account for these wrongfully convicted political prisoners who have been behind bars for decades,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bhutanese authorities should recognize the harm done to these long-serving prisoners and their families and urgently remedy the situation.”

While the total number of political prisoners in Bhutan remains unknown, Human Rights Watch collected information relating to 37 current prisoners who were first detained between 1990 and 2010. Most of them are held separately from other prisoners, in poor conditions, with many suffering physical or psychosocial (mental health) ailments, and are denied regular communication with their families.

Most of these inmates, who are officially considered “political prisoners,” were convicted under the draconian and vaguely worded 1992 National Security Act (NSA). Bhutanese law defines political prisoner as “any person convicted for conspiring, attempting, soliciting, abetting or committing offenses against the Tsa-Wa-Sum [“king, country and people”].” In all 37 cases identified by Human Rights Watch, this is the primary allegation that led to their conviction. At least 24 are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, while the remainder are serving terms of between 15 and 43 years.

The vast majority of this group – 32 prisoners – belong to Bhutan’s Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa (“Southerner”) community, which has faced decades of discrimination and abuse from the Bhutanese government. In the early 1990s, over 90,000 Lhotshampas were forced to become refugees in Nepal, following a crisis precipitated by discriminatory laws, disputed citizenship regulations, and widespread abuses by Bhutan’s security forces. Most of the refugees have since been resettled in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The remaining five prisoners belong to the Sharchop (“Easterner”) community. Four men and a woman are imprisoned for alleged connections to a banned political party, the Druk National Congress, which campaigned for parliamentary democracy and human rights.

Former and current prisoners, and relatives of prisoners, said that the authorities severely tortured detainees both to extract confessions and to punish them, and that they had no legal representation at their trials. A prisoner convicted of treason and terrorism said: “The physical torture [in custody] was merciless, so we had no option but to present ourselves to the court based on their [security forces] demands and their statements. Then the district court declared a sentence of life imprisonment for us. We weren’t given any legal help.”

Many families of prisoners said that they have not been provided with any official documentation and still do not know why their relatives were convicted. Former prisoners too were sometimes unable to describe in common or legal terms the offense for which they themselves were convicted and for which they had served long sentences.

Bhutanese civil society activists told Human Rights Watch that although there have been efforts to modernize the legal system since 2008, no human rights organizations operate within the country. The media also avoids reporting on topics that the authorities consider sensitive. As a result, there has been little public discussion about the political prisoners or their dire situation.

Of the 32 Lhotshampa political prisoners that Human Rights Watch identified, 15 were convicted and imprisoned since the 1990s for protesting mistreatment of their community. This group includes eight former Royal Bhutan Army soldiers who were accused of treason for allegedly participating in those protests. However, family members and former prisoners could not provide any documentation about the charges filed or the court verdict.

Dambar Singh Pulami was arrested in 2001 when he returned to Bhutan from a refugee camp in Nepal to “see his property,” activists said. He was sentenced to 43 years in prison for “extortion, kidnapping, murder and subversive activities.” He suffers from severe ill-health, which caused him to be hospitalized in May 2022.

Another 15 Lhotshampas have been jailed since 2008, after a small group of refugees who had fled as children with their families in the early 1990s returned to Bhutan. The Bhutanese authorities alleged that they intended to participate in an armed campaign for refugee repatriation and minority rights led by the banned Bhutan Communist Party.

Most were captured shortly after arrival, some with small arms and others with political pamphlets. The prosecution contended that because they were refugees, they had “abandoned the country and decided to be enem[ies] of Bhutan,” according to court documents. They received life sentences for “treason” and “terrorism,” and 12 remain in prison.

Also among the 2008 cases are three Lhotshampas who had not become refugees, but allegedly supported the returnees. Another was captured in 2010 and received a life sentence in relation to the same cases. Court documents Human Rights Watch reviewed show that procedures did not meet basic fair trial standards.

Twenty-five of the cases are held at the Chemgang Central Prison near the capital, Thimpu, in a block reserved for “political prisoners.” Accounts from inmates show that while prison conditions improved somewhat between 1994 and 2012, when the International Committee of the Red Cross was visiting the prison, they have declined in recent years. Both the food and clothing provided are inadequate.

Another 10 political prisoners, including the former soldiers, are held in a remote and secretive facility at Rabuna, described by one of the few former inmates known to have been released as “the point of no return.” Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm where the two other political prisoners are being held.

Several prisoners or their relatives reported that prisoners have suffered severe and persistent health problems, particularly as a result of torture. Those with physical illnesses do not receive adequate treatment in prison, which former prisoners said may have contributed to the death of two people.

On November 7, 2022, Human Rights Watch wrote to the government of Bhutan concerning the information and allegations contained in this report but received no response.

Bhutanese law empowers the king to grant amnesty. In 1999, the king at that time, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, granted amnesty to 40 political prisoners, including some serving life sentences. In 2022, the present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, granted amnesty to a political prisoner serving a life term.

The United Nations, donors, and concerned governments should urge Bhutan’s authorities to unconditionally release political prisoners and others who are being incarcerated for exercising their fundamental human rights or as a result of trials that violated due process. The government should undertake major reforms of the legal system to bring it into compliance with international human rights law, adopt measures to end torture and provide remedies for victims, and allow independent monitoring of prison conditions.

“The long-term imprisonment and mistreatment of political prisoners remains a blight on Bhutan’s human rights record,” Ganguly said. “Bhutanese authorities should release these prisoners and embark on reforms to end torture in custody, unfair trials, and poor prison conditions.”

Source: Human Rights Watch