(New York) - Both sides in Nepal’s civil war should immediately cease targeting political activists in the run up to controversial elections scheduled for February 8, Human Rights Watch said today. Thursday marks the deadline for candidates to register for the elections. Nepal’s main political parties have announced they will launch a nationwide strike on Thursday to protest the elections, while Maoist rebels have vowed to disrupt the voting.
“Nepal’s citizens are caught between two violent forces that operate without regard for people’s rights,” said Sam Zarifi, research director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Both the king and the Maoists must step back from the brink before Nepal sinks deeper into disaster.”
On Sunday, two gunmen, believed to be associated with Nepal’s Maoist party, now in the tenth year of rebellion against the government, killed a pro-monarchy candidate in the southeastern city of Janakpur. Bijay Lal Das was a member of the Nepal Sadhbhavana Party and had registered as a candidate for the municipal elections.
Meanwhile, the government, which has been under the absolute rule of King Gyanendra since February 1, continued its campaign to silence political opposition. In the face of intense internal and international pressure, the government lifted some of the severe restrictions it had imposed a week ago, including a curfew and total ban on protests, and restored mobile telephone service.
But on Tuesday police forces fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse a rally in the heart of Kathmandu’s business district, and arrested dozens of activists from the opposition parties as they attempted to carry on with the rally. On Wednesday, newspapers reported more than 100 arrests of political demonstrators nationwide.
Ever since the king assumed full executive authority nearly a year ago, fundamental rights such as free speech and assembly have come under sustained attack, and often these rights have been summarily and unlawfully suspended. The king announced local elections for February 8 in an effort to establish democratic credentials, but nearly all of the major political parties have boycotted the elections as unfair.
Several political leaders, including the leaders of the chief opposition parties, the Congress Party and the United Marxist Leninist party, were placed under house arrest last week in an attempt to stop political protests. Hundreds of activists and members of civil society were placed under house arrest or detained around the country. The government cited national security concerns, claiming that the political protests had been infiltrated by Maoists, but has produced no evidence to support this claim.
Human Rights Watch again called on the government to immediately release all those detained or kept under house arrest. Human Rights Watch also voiced concern over the continued use of the Public Security Act (PSA) to arrest protesters. The PSA was enacted during the era of absolute monarchical rule preceding the current constitution, which was enacted in 1990. The law allows for preventive detention of 90 days with the possibility of extension for up to one year.
“These events give the lie to the king’s repeated statements about his firm belief in democracy,” said Zarifi. “If he wants his public commitments to fundamental liberties to be taken seriously, he has to show that his forces will respect basic human rights standards.”
Human Rights Watch also urged the Maoists to avoid targeting civilians in the course of what seem to be increasing attacks on security forces. Following the end of their unilateral ceasefire earlier this month, Maoist rebel forces have launched fresh assaults against government security forces, in several instances needlessly endangering civilians. An attack earlier this week in residential and market areas of Nepalganj, a major trading town on the southwestern border with India, caused at least one civilian death. There are reports of other civilian casualties in attacks in Makwanpur and Thangkot. There are ongoing reports of fresh fighting in Dhangadi, and bomb blasts in Kathmandu.
“The Maoists can voice their opposition to these elections, but that does not mean they are free to kill those who choose to participate,” said Zarifi. “Mr. Das’s murder is clearly a warning to other candidates.”