When Beatings Become Routine…
In 1989, when Peoples Forum for Human Rights in Bhutan started to campaign for restoration of fundamental human rights in the country, I along with some friends went to meet the leaders living in exile. Few days later, after I returned to Bhutan, a Police Officer came to my house and spoke to me for a long while. Soon, a rumour began to float around about my arrest. I fled for safety to Assam, the bordering state of India. Five months later when I returned home, I found most of my friends arrested and imprisoned.
For safety reasons, I continued to stay in India. While staying in India, I had arranged a meeting with the then Governor of Assam. I went to discuss about this meeting with my friends inside Bhutan. On 26th January 1991, as we were proceeding to India for the meeting, our vehicle broke down. Suddenly, the police force led by Captain Tandin and Captain Ugey Sonam arrived at the spot and arrested four of us. We were taken to Lodrai Central Jail, 7 km away from Gelephu.
In the prison, Captain Tandin and Captain Ugey took away all my clothing and started charging ruthlessly with wooden baton. Next, they started to beat on the soles of my feet. At first, I screamed in agony. Due to nonstop beating, I began to lose the sense of touch. My entire body started swelling up and nerves began to numb. Slowly, I began to lose my sense of place and time. They stopped beating. One of the officers leaned towards me and said, “Tomorrow, I am meeting the King and what do you think I should tell him for the resolution of the problem?” I replied in fractured and faint voice, “Remove the ban on Bhutanese Nepalese culture; withdraw the implementation of Green Belt along southern Bhutan bordering India and promote national harmony”. After that I was taken into a room and kept in solitary confinement.
On the second day, they began to torture me again. I was punched on my face several times. With their knees, they would hit on my abdomen. Beatings became routine. I was always beaten during the night and interrogated during the day. On the fourth day, Captain Ugey Sonam and Captain Rinzin again interrogated me. After that interrogation, 20 inches long heavy iron rod was clamped on my leg as shackle.
On the 23rd day, I was allowed to wash my face. Still my eyes, skull, forehead, jaw-bones and cheeks were all bruised and swollen up. My vision had been badly damaged. Shortly afterwards, police Major Kipchu Namgyal, [present Chief of Police in Bhutan] came to Lodrai Jail. He started to interrogate me. He asked me similar questions, what other officers were asking so far. And in reply I gave him the same answers what I was giving to others. He got infuriated and yelled at me – “I don’t want to hear your Mahabharat [a Hindu Epic]. Answer what I ask”. In pain and frustration, I would retort – “Instead of treating me like this, why don’t you kill me?” He would grin sarcastically and say – “If I killed you here, the King will thank me. He will never ask what happened to you. And no one will question either.”
As interrogation advanced, I was made to sit on the ground with my back on the wall. A long log of wood was slipped below my calves. Another log was kept atop my shin. Policeman stood on each end of the log atop my shin and began to roll and crush my bones. Another policeman took a wooden baton and started to hit on my soles. While Kipchu continued asking questions, the three policemen kept on crushing my shin and hitting my soles. After awhile, they removed the log beneath my legs and continued to press with the upper one.
Still later, they started to clamp my thighs. The policemen stood atop the clamp and began jumping. The pain was excruciating and I felt that my thighs were flattening out. Blood drained from my legs and spread across the concrete. I wailed. I yelled. I begged them to shoot and kill me instead of inflicting such pain. Nobody listen to my plea. They continued with interrogation and torture. When they stopped, they asked me to get up – but my legs did not move. They dragged me into a room. Later on, my friends said that I had been beaten continuously for eleven hours. A doctor was called to see me. When he asked what happened to you? I pointed at Kipchu and said – He tortured me. Kipchu almost jumped over me. He was restrained by his fellow officers. After that my days of solitary confinement began.
Due to torture, I could not move my jaw properly and my teeth were aching. I couldn’t eat the food provided by the prison guards. There was a Dimpen, a junior officer, who I knew from my days in the Forest Department. He came to my rescue showing genuine sympathy. He ordered his constables to make chapatti. I could eat only one piece. He sent one person to massage my body.
Since my arrest on 26 January 1991, I was kept incommunicado. My family was not informed about my arrest and detention. The Police instead went to my house and harassed my family. They asked my wife about my whereabouts, while I was being detained by them. She was beaten by the police on several occasions. Once she was hit by a police with the butt of his rifle.
In December 1991, I was transferred to the building that housed National Institute of Family Planning in Gelephu. The institute then had been converted into a prison and around 20-25 inmates each were kept in 6 different blocks. For the past eleven months, I had been handcuffed at the back. It was extremely difficult for me to take food with the handcuffs on. It was a big relief when they handcuffed me in the front.
Even in the new location the beatings continued. I was taken to Gelephu Police station for taking my statement. I signed to the fact that whatever I had confessed on the second day of my arrest in Lodrai Central Jail was true. I saw Kipchu moving around the prison, which worried me. Again, I was taken back to Lodra Jail.
On 5th April 1992, twenty-eight of us were transferred to Chemgang prison, near Thimphu. At around 7 pm we reached Chemgang. As the tradition of the prison, we all were beaten by the policemen before entering the prison complex. Few days ago, large number of prisoners had been released due to lack of evidence. And we were taken to replace them to construct three new prisons.
Early morning we had to get up and pray. We were given raw wheat flour with hot water as breakfast. They would order us to run up the hill and if we didn’t, the police guards would start kicking randomly. During the working hour, one prisoner was watched by one policeman. If any inmate ever slowed down, even out of fatigue, they start to charge with sticks or begin to punch. They would yell at us and say – “You need to work like lightening”. We had to carry stones; size them into a given measurement; make pebbles and make concrete. There were seven of us who were specifically assigned to make concrete out of the pebbles and cement. In a day, we used around 80 sacks of cement to make concrete. With heavy shackles in our legs, we toiled the whole day.
As Tandin Wangdi came as the supervisor of Chemgang prison, beatings resumed. During day time we had to do ten hours of hard labour. And at midnight policemen would come in the cell and beat regularly. The food was horrible. Criminals were kept as prison cooks. We never got to eat vegetables. When the criminal inmates distributed food, they would give thin soup and few pieces of radish from the top to the inmates from southern Bhutan, while they served thick soup and potatoes to their friends from the north.
In six months time, we completed the first prison house with the assistance of Bengali carpenters from India. The dimension of prison building was around 110 feet long and 30 feet wide and was very high. We partitioned it into 12-14 rooms on the sides and a corridor in between with an entrance gate. The very next day, 91 of us were transferred to the new prison. And we continued our work to build the next prison.
Many died in Chemgang prison. Around 12 inmates disappeared in August 1992. Inmates like, Maden Budathoki, Man Bahadur Bhujel, Lal Bahadur, Man Bahadur Rai disappeared. We thought they went to refugee camps in Nepal, but they were never found alive again.
In 1992, the old set of prison guards were sent away and was replaced by a new team. We were also provided with blankets. On 12th January 1993, they removed our shackles. From the 17th January onwards they stopped sending us to work. By then we had completed the construction of second prison and inmates had already been moved into it. On 20th January 1993 members of International Committee of Red Cross visited us in Chemgang for the first time. I got registered with ICRC with Reg. No. ICRC N BTN-000 107-01. After ICRC’s visit, the prison conditions improved a little. However, beatings continued and we were again made to do hard labour.
On one occasion, the ICRC members visited the prison and went back. Immediately, they returned to the prison and asked us to talk to them freely. Some inmates gathered courage and registered the complaints of continuing ill-treatment and torture. Incidents where police official urinated into the mouth of inmates, when they asked for water and other homosexual incidents were also reported. The complaints made impact. Prison officials were reprimanded. Nonetheless, after ICRC left, the police officers came around and scolded us, saying “Is the Red Cross your father that you need to complain to them?” With the visit of ICRC from time to time, medicine became accessible and medical treatment improved. It was also through ICRC that I came to learn about my father’s death after 45days.
On 26th December 1994, I was released after 3 years and 11 months incarceration. I eventually joined my family in the refugee camp in Nepal, who had fled from Bhutan in 1992.
(As published in “Refugees from the Land of Gross National Happiness” by Bhutanese Advocacy Forum- Europe. Ghaley shared this story with Avishek Gazmere and Jogen Gazmere in South Australia.)
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