Human Rights Developments
Dramatic change took place in Nepal in 1990, transforming the country from an absolute monarchy where political parties were prohibited by law to a constitutional monarchy with a new constitution that contained important human rights guarantees.
The path to reform was marked by violence and serious human rights violations by security forces. Arrests of opposition activists increased steadily in the final weeks of 1989, as opposition political parties, which existed in fact if not in law, began organizing a campaign for the restoration of multiparty democracy, scheduled to begin on February 18, 1990.
On February 5, the largest of these parties, the Nepali Congress, passed a resolution officially launching the "country-wide peaceful mass movement." Shortly thereafter, as many as 475 opposition party members, human rights advocates, students, lawyers and journalists were arrested. Opposition newspapers were seized, reportedly because they contained articles critical of the government and advocating a multiparty system. In a number of incidents, police opened fire indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. Estimates of the number killed range from 50 to several hundred. While the lower figure probably is more accurate, the precise figure may never be known because the police disposed of many of the bodies in secret without conducting inquests.
Throughout the 1990 pro-democracy campaign, demonstrators and others engaging in the peaceful expression of their political views were subjected to mass arrest. In most cases, persons were detained for periods ranging from half a day to several weeks. The detainees were rarely charged under any law, not even under the broad provisions of the Public Security Act.
In one particularly egregious incident, on March 20, over 500 persons were arrested while participating in a seminar at Tribhuvan University which had been organized by the University Teachers' Association, other professional associations, members of the Bar Association and human rights groups. Most of those arrested were held for six to eight hours for interrogation, and some for several days. The detainees were questioned about previous political activity and associations. They were not permitted to notify family members or contact lawyers during their detention.
The use of torture against demonstrators and political activists was widespread. Detainees were often severely beaten all over the body, including the head and the soles of the feet, with wooden batons (lathis). At Traffic Police Headquarters in Kathmandu, where hundreds were held, detainees were whipped, thrown into water tanks, and kept in crowded rooms without adequate food, water and toilet facilities. Many of those detained were held outside ordinary detention centers, where they also were subjected to severe beatings and other forms of torture.
The incident that marked a watershed in the campaign occurred on April 6, when security forces opened fire on hundreds of peaceful demonstrators outside the King's palace. Days later, as demonstrations against the actions of the security forces grew, King Birendra acceded to the opposition's demand to lift the ban on political parties. The Prime Minister resigned and an interim government under K.P. Bhattarai took office and established a Constitutional Commission to redraft the country's constitution. Political prisoners were released, and inquiries into abuses by the security forces were begun. On November 9, 1990, the new constitution was promulgated and the drafting of an election law was undertaken, with elections to be held in March or April 1991.
The 1990 Constitution guarantees a free and independent press, the right to petition for habeas corpus, and the right of workers to unionize. It also abolishes the death penalty. However, the interim government has been unable to secure civilian control over the country's military forces.
The Bush administration was inexplicably slow to express concern about the crackdown against the pro-democracy movement in Nepal and about human rights violations by the security forces. The first major public statement by the State Department came on April 2, more than six weeks after the mass arrests began. In that statement, the administration said that "the Nepalese should be free to organize themselves into political parties if they so choose and to express their opinions freely, without fear of arrests or other reprisals." The administration also expressed concern about "the excessive use of force in quelling demonstrations, the practice of preventive detention, and reports of mistreatment of prisoners."
In March, the US ambassador to Nepal, Julia Chang Bloch, responded to Asia Watch questions about the widespread practice of torture in Nepal by asking rhetorically whether it was not the case that torture was fairly standard in the Third World.
After the events of April 6, the administration made some interventions with Nepalese authorities. For example, on April 24, the State Department said that it had "raised [its] concerns with the Nepalese government about the security situation." After the Constitutional Reforms Commission presented a draft constitution to King Birendra and the Palace announced that it would be promulgated on November 9, Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs John Kelly testified on November 2, before the House Subcommittee on Asia and Pacific Affairs, saying:
The Work of Asia Watch
The sharp deterioration in human rights in Nepal in early 1990 prompted Asia Watch to send a mission to the country to investigate reports of torture and the shooting of peaceful demonstrators.
Prior to the mission, Asia Watch issued a number of press releases to focus international attention on the crisis. For example, on February 26, Asia Watch welcomed the initiative of six members of the US Congress who sent a letter to King Birendra expressing concern over mass arrests of pro-democracy activists and calling for investigations into reports of torture of detainees. At the same time, Asia Watch protested the government's banning of over ten opposition newspapers and called on it to release all political activists arrested for exercising rights of freedom of expression and association.
The Asia Watch delegation visited Nepal between March 16 and 25. Asia Watch researchers met with representatives of the Nepali Congress and United Left Front, lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, and senior officials of then Prime Minister Marich Man Singh Shrestha's government. The delegation also met with released prisoners and the families of detainees, relatives of victims of police shootings, and doctors who had treated torture victims and persons injured during demonstrations.
In June, as the Constitutional Commission began its proceedings, Asia Watch submitted a detailed memorandum to the government, summarizing the mission's findings and making recommendations on legal and constitutional reforms to ensure greater protection for human rights.