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(New York) - The Nepalese army is preventing local journalists and rights activists from publicizing abuses by the military or criticizing any government action, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since February 1, when the Royal Nepal Army supported King Gyanendra’s takeover of power, the military has enforced restrictions on the press and human rights activists. The military shut down the primary source of news for most Nepalis: radio news broadcasts. In many cases, even sports news is banned. Similarly, newspapers face stringent guidelines about what they can report.

The army has pursued its crackdown beyond the capital Kathmandu. In Nepalganj, the largest city in western Nepal, military authorities directed the civilian administration to issue guidelines restricting the content of newspapers. These 12-point guidelines prohibit any criticism of the monarchy, the state of emergency, or news that is intended to “demoralize” civil servants. News about strikes is also forbidden, as is coverage of Maoist rebel attacks (although news on civilians killed by the Maoists is permitted). The guidelines also prohibit the coverage of information from any political parties and other political organizations, and bans the publication of news from the international media on the Maoists and other political groups in Nepal. (Since the beginning of the civil war in 1996, Maoist rebels have been responsible for numerous atrocities against civilians.)

Journalists in Nepalganj were summoned to a meeting with the local military commander and told they would not face any problems so long as they followed the guidelines. A journalist who attended the meeting said: “I don’t have any questions about what could happen if I violated the guidelines. At any rate, our editors are too scared to assign us stories that could lead to criticism [of the army] or publish our stories if we write them.”

“The army’s clampdown on Nepal’s media is more than a matter of free speech,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Prohibiting public scrutiny of the army’s actions puts Nepalis at greater risk of abuses.”

Journalists and human rights activists in the trekking resort city of Pokhara, about 150 kilometers west of Kathmandu said that they could not report on the army’s armed crackdown on students at the Prithwi Narayan University campus on February 1. In this attack, one student was shot in the leg and 58 were detained and beaten while in custody.

According to witnesses, students began demonstrating immediately after the royal proclamation of the King’s takeover. Protesting students burned a government motorcycle, and the protest eventually escalated into a standoff between students inside the campus throwing stones and police and army units outside the gates responding with teargas.

At around 4 P.M., some 80 to 100 army troops, assisted by a helicopter, broke through the university gate, and some troops fired their guns. One student, 19-year-old Geeta K.C., was shot in the right thigh as she was observing the demonstration from about 150 meters away. Two female students who tried to help her were later arrested, along with 56 male students.

The students were blindfolded and taken to Fulbari Army Barracks, where they were beaten, several of them severely. Soldiers beat a student leader so severely that he suffers from impaired vision in his right eye. Other students were repeatedly kicked by troops while they remained blindfolded and in some cases handcuffed. The students were released the next day after the dean of the university interceded with security officials.

About 170 political activists and student leaders remain under arrest in Nepal. (For list of known cases, based on available information, please click here.) Journalists, rights advocates and civil society activists from several cities told Human Rights Watch that they have significantly curtailed their activities because they fear army reprisals. Although few political party activists at the district level have been detained, most political parties have ceased operating openly.

Human Rights Watch welcomed the release of several human rights activists, including Sindhunath Pyakurel, a prominent human rights attorney and former President of the Nepal Bar Association. He was released just two hours before Nepal’s Supreme Court was scheduled to hear his habeas corpus petition. Pyakurel, whose heart condition had prompted international concern about his treatment, said that he had been treated well in detention.

In light of the thousands of “disappearances” that have occurred in the context of the government’s armed conflict with Maoist rebels, the most new cases in any country in recent years, Human Rights Watch is especially concerned for the safety of those in detention.

Several countries withdrew their ambassadors from Nepal this week in protest of the king’s actions, including India, the United States, Britain, France and Germany.

“The army’s tightening of restrictions on the media reflect its deepening grip on political power in Nepal,” said Adams. “International pressure on Nepal must be directed at the army as well as the King. The King must immediately lift these restrictions on the media, and return the military to civilian control.”

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