Bhutan's human rights record poor: Report

Published on Mar 12 2010 // Human Rights Monitor

March 12, 2010: The US state department’s annual human rights report documents a number of human rights violation incidents in Bhutan in the year 2009 despite liberalization of political and religious freedom.

According to the report released on Thursday, there were five cases of disappearance in February 2009 from Samchi reported to UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. There hasn’t been any response from the government regarding the disappearance.

Some human rights groups alleged the army mistreated cadres of the BCP MLM who were arrested after a series of bomb blasts prior to the March 2008 elections. The government detained Maoist leaders and denied them food and medical treatment.

During the year the ICRC visited 86 persons held at the Chamgang Prison near Thimphu. None of the 86 persons was a woman or juvenile. At the time of the visit in January, Chamgan Prison authorities told the ICRC the prison held a total of 405 prisoners, including the 86 the ICRC visited.

The country continued to detain 50 BCP MLM cadres arrested in connection with bomb blasts in January and February 2008. No information was available regarding their whereabouts or whether the government brought official charges against them.

At least 200 political prisoners remained imprisoned in the country. During the year, the government released four or five individuals who had been imprisoned from 1991 to 1992 for violence associated with political dissent.

Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) asserted that, although some political prisoners were sentenced to life in prison, other sentences varied, and most ranged from three months to three years.

In March, 10 inmates engaged in a hunger strike to demand the release of all political prisoners, but in April authorities informed the ICRC that the prisoners had stopped the strike. Participants included Shantiram Acharya, who reportedly was arrested for taking photographs of an army outpost and charged for participating in “subversive activities,” and N.L. Katwal, a political activist arrested for participation in a demonstration. The Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) alleged Acharya was kept in secret detention for two months and subsequently tortured by police. APFA also stated Acharya was convicted only because he could not afford a lawyer.

Human rights groups claimed the government interfered with individual rights by requiring all citizens, including ethnic minority members, to wear the traditional dress of the ethnic majority in public places. The government strictly enforced the law, however, only in Buddhist religious buildings, government offices, schools, official functions, and public ceremonies. Younger citizens increasingly refused to comply with this regulation.

In practice, individuals are permitted to criticize the government publicly, but the law prohibits criticism of the king and the political system. Independent newspapers operated and published stories critical of the government, although some NGOs expressed concern about increasing government interference with independent media sources. NGOS reported that the government fined a media outlet for airing a discussion of taxi fares. The reports stated that the InfoCom and Media Authority (BICMA) interrogated editors of a newspaper following their publication of an article about government interference in the media.

In May a reporter from the country stated in his presentation at a regional conference in Nepal that it “was too early to say that Bhutan had freedom of press.” Private radio and television stations were active and expressed a variety of views, but media observers reported that the government may have limited the number of television stations as a result of high sales taxes and regulatory obstacles.

The government did not allow NGOs that work on overtly political issues to operate inside the country. Security forces arrested citizens for taking part in peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations, and the government deported southern Bhutanese refugees who had been living in Nepal but who entered the country to demonstrate for the right to return.

The government did not permit political parties organized by ethnic Nepalese citizens. Local civil society organizations censored themselves to avoid conflict with the government.

NGOs reported that the government required permission to build religious temples but rarely granted it for non-Buddhist buildings. Followers of religions other than Buddhism and Hinduism were free to worship in private but were not permitted to erect religious buildings or congregate in public. International Christian relief organizations and Jesuit priests were active in education and humanitarian activities, but several organizations reported that Christian religious services often had to be held in private in order to avoid harassment by authorities.

The government restricted emigration and prohibited the return of citizens who left the country. The country’s revised citizenship laws state that persons who have left the country of their own accord, without the knowledge or permission of the government, or whose names are not recorded in the citizenship register maintained in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), would not be considered citizens of the country. Some dissidents and human rights groups claimed the government wrote the law specifically to deny citizenship to ethnic Nepalese Bhutanese. Human rights groups also alleged that some ethnic Nepalese who had relatives in the camps faced insurmountable bureaucratic challenges and were denied identification cards, compromising their citizenship status and preventing them from participating in the 2008 election process.

Read the full report here.