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(New York) - Nepal is plunging deeper into a massive human rights crisis following last week’s seizure of power by King Gyanendra and the Royal Nepalese Army, Human Rights Watch said today.

With ongoing arrests reported around the country, Human Rights Watch said that there is a risk that some of those being arrested will be “disappeared” by the security forces and never seen again, as happened during Nepal’s last state of emergency in 2001.

On February 1, the King and the Royal Nepalese Army seized effective control of all levers of power in Nepal and embarked on a campaign of arbitrary arrests, censorship, and general repression. The King has imposed a state of emergency throughout Nepal and has suspended fundamental constitutional rights, including freedom of assembly and expression, the right to information and privacy, the right to property and the prohibition against arbitrary detention. Because the constitution does not allow the King’s actions to be challenged in court, Nepal’s population is effectively at the mercy of the security forces, which have a history of widespread and serious violations of human rights.

“With all power concentrated in the hands of the King, he is now responsible for what happens to the people detained after the takeover,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch. “In handing the army unbridled power, he will also be responsible for the predictable human rights abuses the army commits under the state of emergency.”

Although information from areas outside Kathmandu remains limited due to the cutting of telephone and internet services, Human Rights Watch said that at least 150 political leaders and student activists have been arbitrarily detained or placed under house arrest since the February 1 royal takeover. [Please see "List of Confirmed Detainees" in the sidebar.]

During past crackdowns and the last state of emergency (2001-2002) the security forces arrested numerous journalists, student leaders, political activists, lawyers, and suspected Maoist sympathizers who were then “disappeared”—arrested and never seen again, and presumably killed in custody.

“We are not just concerned about the arbitrary arrests that are taking place across Nepal,” said Adams. “Our chief concern is that some of those being arrested may never be seen again, that they might ‘disappear’ or be killed in custody, as happened during the last state of emergency.”

Among the immediate targets for arrest were the political leaders upon whom the King expressed scorn in his televised address announcing his seizure of power for the next three years. The government has acknowledged that twenty-seven national political leaders are either under house arrest or in detention, including every prime minister since 1990.

The country’s most senior active political leaders, including Sher Bahadur Deuba, the dismissed Prime Minister and chairperson of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) party; Madhav Kumar Nepal, secretary-general of the (mainstream and non-violent) Communist Party of Nepal-UML; and Girija Prasad Koirala, chairperson of the Nepali Congress Party; have been placed under house arrest and are reportedly not allowed to receive guests, read newspapers, listen to the radio or television, or make phone calls.

In addition to the political leadership, more than one hundred local political leaders and student activists have also reportedly been arrested throughout the country. Most central committee members of the mainstream political parties have either been arrested, placed under house arrest, or have been forced into hiding. Security forces have deployed at the entrance gates of various universities and colleges, and have begun arresting student leaders.

Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern about the safety of human rights activists throughout Nepal, who may be the next target for arrest by the security forces. In December 2004, several human rights activists had to leave Nepal after learning their names were on an Army arrest list. Some human rights activists have reported that they are being stopped by security forces at the airport who then check their names against an extensive list of persons targeted for arrest.

On February 8, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal (NHRC) and Kapil Shrestha, a fellow commissioner, attempted to board a plane to the eastern city of Biratnagar to open a regional office of the NHRC. After security forces reviewed a list of names, they prohibited Shrestha from boarding the plane, saying he was not allowed to leave Kathmandu “for your own safety.”

Human Rights Watch said that a number of prominent human rights activists have already been arrested since the royal takeover. Among those currently detained are Sindhu Nath Pyakurel, the former president of the Nepal Bar Association and a prominent human rights activist who suffers from a serious heart condition. Authorities reportedly barred him from receiving necessary medication. Human Rights Watch called on the Nepali authorities to immediately allow Pyakurel access to medical assistance to assess his condition.

Other human rights activists who have been arrested include Nanda Bhandari, the secretary of the Nepal Bar Association’s Appellate Court unit; Kalyan K.C., a human rights lawyer from the eastern city of Biratnagar; Lok Prasad Pant, a human rights activist from Dang district; and Nilamber Acharya, a Kathmandu-based human rights activist. Virtually the entire human rights activist community has been forced into hiding.

“Nepal’s small but committed human rights community is now afraid of facing the brunt of the Nepalese government’s repression,” Adams said. “They continue to document and expose abuses, but now many of the cases they report are from their own community.”

The King has instituted severe constraints on all manners of public expression. On February 6, the King issued a 21-point directive prohibiting all media––print, radio, television, and the internet––from making or conveying any direct or indirect public comment regarding the work of the security agencies that could affect their morale. All public gatherings are subject to restrictive licensing requirements.

The King has ordered that the media can only print information approved by the National Security Council, and has formally banned for the next six months, under threat of arrest, any information criticizing “the intent and spirit” of the state of emergency. For a week after the takeover, media offices around the country were occupied by armed security officials, who in some cases directly intervened to censor news reports.

At a meeting with newspaper editors, the King’s secretary reportedly stated that he would be unable to “help” if the military decided to “disappear” journalists or editors “for a few hours,” a disturbing statement in a country that according to the U.N. had the highest number of reported new “disappearances” in the world in both 2003 and 2004. A number of prominent journalists have been arrested. According to army spokesperson General Dipak Gurung, Bisnu Nisthuri, the general secretary of the Nepal Federation of Journalists, has been arrested. The BBC’s Nepali news service has been forced to suspend its broadcasts, and Netra K.C., its correspondent in the western city of Nepalgunj, was reportedly detained and then released. The president of the Nepal Federation of Journalists, Tara Nath Dahal, has been forced to go into hiding after several attempts by the Royal Nepalese Army to arrest him.

“The King’s representatives are now engaging in shocking threats to journalists and editors,” said Adams.

The severe restrictions and dangers of arrest faced by human rights activists and journalists have made it virtually impossible to continue independent monitoring of the conduct of the security forces in Nepal. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that abuses by the security forces will increase dramatically in the absence of international and local monitoring mechanisms, aggravating Nepal’s already severe human rights crisis.

Human Rights Watch urged the Nepali authorities to take immediate steps to prevent arbitrary arrests, “disappearances,” and summary killings in the current climate. The Nepali authorities should publicly instruct their security forces not to engage in such practices, and should immediately release the names and whereabouts of all persons arrested. The National Human Rights Commission of Nepal (NHRC) and international humanitarian agencies should have unimpeded access to all persons detained during the state of emergency.

“The King’s announcement of taking over power referred several times to human rights, but his actions after declaring the state of emergency have violated the most basic principles of international human rights,” Adams said.

Human Rights Watch urged the diplomatic community to demand an immediate end to the arbitrary arrests in Nepal, and to take proactive steps to protect political leaders, student activists, human rights activists, and journalists from abuses by the security forces.

Human Rights Watch commended India for its strong response to the King’s takeover. India canceled its participation in the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation because of the expected participation of King Gyanendra, calling for an immediate restoration of democracy and suspending military aid. The United Kingdom and United States have also condemned the King’s seizure of power, but the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, providers of significant economic assistance to Nepal, have remained silent.

“It is crucial for the international community to demonstrate that it will not lightly accept the King’s abusive actions,” said Adams. “If they act with a common purpose, the King and the army will have little choice but to reverse course.”

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