(New York) - The Nepali government has instituted a Code of Conduct to restrict the activities of national and international “social organizations,” Human Rights Watch said today.

Ostensibly, the Code of Conduct regulates the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Nepal. But in reality, it appears to be aimed at silencing critics of King Gyanendra and his government, which came to power after the king's coup on February 1.

Human Rights Watch called on the Nepali government to immediately repeal the Code, which it adopted on Thursday. The Code prohibits any activity endangering “social harmony” and bars NGO staff from having political affiliations, meaning that only those with no political leanings may work for NGOs. It also attempts to control the places NGOs can work and makes all staff and officials of an NGO legally responsible for the NGO's activities, even if an individual is not involved in that activity. Such provisions violate international legal protections for freedom of expression and freedom of association.

“The Code of Conduct is a dangerous tool in the hands of a government openly hostile to the idea of human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government hopes to use this legal veneer to muffle the voices of those who have the courage to stand up to it.”

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the Code of Conduct will be used to curtail the work of human rights workers and organizations that have been documenting abuses in spite of sustained attacks against them since the February coup.

The Code also establishes a government-appointed Social Welfare Council to oversee the work of NGOs with the clear intention of limiting their freedom of action.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that many provisions, such as the term “social harmony,” are vague and subject to arbitrary interpretations.

“In a country where journalists, lawyers and opposition party members are arbitrarily detained on a regular basis, this Code is a recipe for abuse,” said Adams. “The Code will make it legally dangerous for civil society organizations and individuals to take part in legitimate and peaceful activities.”

Since the king's February 1 coup, many human rights defenders have been detained, fled the country, gone into hiding, or stopped working altogether. Those who have continued to work do so at great personal risk and have incurred the wrath of the government.

Human Rights Watch said that the Code of Conduct is the latest in a series of repressive acts since the coup. In October, the king adopted a media ordinance that forbids any criticism of the royal family and prohibits FM radio stations from broadcasting any news, regardless of the content. The media ordinance has greatly restricted the capacity of the media to report freely and led directly to the closure of the country's largest FM radio news network, Kantipur FM.

After adoption of the Code on Conduct, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Hina Jalani, expressed serious alarm over the future of human rights workers in Nepal.