Bhutan: New report highlights situation of several dozen political prisoners imprisoned for decades
As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, many of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa people were stripped of citizenship rights and driven out of Bhutan in the 1990s after the king at the time introduced a “One Nation, One People” policy. Tens of thousands fled and ended up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. Those who resisted where labelled “anti-nationals” and arrested. Dozens were jailed for dissent and some are still serving sentences.
On 13th March 2023, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report on the several dozen political prisoners in Bhutan who have been imprisoned for decades following unfair trials and alleged torture.
According to HRW, Bhutanese courts convicted and imposed long sentences on peaceful political and anti-discrimination activists and others arrested for a range of alleged national security offences. 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.
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 those detained - who are officially considered “political prisoners” - were convicted under the draconian and vaguely-worded 1992 National Security Act (NSA). Bhutanese law defines a political prisoner as “any person convicted for conspiring, attempting, soliciting, abetting or committing offences against the Tsa-Wa-Sum [“king, country and people”].” In all 37 cases 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.
HRW stated that 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.
Several dozen political prisoners have been imprisoned for decades in #Bhutan following unfair trials and alleged torture. The Royal Government of Bhutan should quash the convictions and release them @hrwhttps://t.co/L9nFAwe40S pic.twitter.com/UWV7a3itpG— meenakshi ganguly (@mg2411) March 14, 2023
According to HRW, former and current prisoners, and relatives of prisoners, have 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. 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.
Similar concerns were also highlighted by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) in its July 2019 report. As previously documented, the Working Group interviewed several prisoners who had been imprisoned under national security legislation. During its interviews with the detainees, the Working Group was informed of a number of due process violations when the individuals were tried some 25 years ago, including the lack of legal representation. Many reported having been convicted for actions that appeared to the Working Group to be unrelated to terrorism. The Working Group recommended that the situation of those detainees be reviewed to determine whether there were any due process violations that may have led to their conviction.
Bhutanese civil society activists told HRW that 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.