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Top row: Lok Bahadur Ghaley; Rinzin Wangdi; Chandra Raj Rai; Kumar Gautam. Bottom row: San Man Gurung; Birkha Bdr Chhetri; Omnath Adhikari; Chaturman Tamang.   © Private

“The physical torture was merciless,” said one man, “so we had no option but to present ourselves to the court based on [the security forces’] demands and their statements.”

“They would beat me up, so I confessed, although it wasn’t true,” said another.

Such allegations have appeared over and over again in the work of Human Rights Watch around the world. But most people don’t expect to hear them from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, whose rulers famously claim to maximize “gross national happiness” instead of mere GDP. This idea, enshrined in the kingdom’s 2008 constitution, has been taken up by economists and the United Nations, and inspired an annual World Happiness Report.

But Human Rights Watch has documented the presence of at least 37 inmates in the country’s prisons who are described under Bhutanese law as “political prisoners” because of alleged political crimes against the state.

The origin of most of these cases goes back to the period around 1990, when the Bhutanese state drove around 90,000 Bhutanese who speak Nepali as a first language into exile. In a country that had around 550,000 people, that was a large share of the population.

The ruling elite, from the Ngalop community, had come to see the Nepali-speaking community as a threat to Bhutan’s cultural identity and their own dominant position. New, discriminatory citizenship laws stripped many of their citizenship, while “Bhutanization” laws aimed at enforcing a version of national identity based on Ngalop culture and language. Amid widespread security force abuses, many Nepali-speakers were forced to flee and became refugees in nearby Nepal, although a sizable Nepali-speaking community remained in Bhutan.

Thousands were arrested for peacefully protesting these policies. Many were released on the condition that they leave the country, or after serving their terms. Bur the longest serving political prisoners have been in prison, serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole, since 1990. They include eight former Nepali-speaking soldiers of the Royal Bhutan Army who allegedly attended protest at a secretive and remote jail used to imprison former officials accused of treachery.

Another 15 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese have been imprisoned since 2008 – 12 of them serving sentences of life without parole. These were young men who had fled Bhutan as children with their families, and came back to Bhutan as part of a campaign for the right to return by a banned group called the Bhutan Communist Party. Most were captured shortly after their arrival, some with small arms and others with political pamphlets. At their trials for treason, the prosecution contended that because their families fled when they were infants, these young men had “abandoned the country and decided to be enem[ies] of Bhutan.”

Five of the political prisoners belong to a different community known as Sharchops (“Easterners”). Four men and a woman are imprisoned for alleged connections to another banned political party, the Druk National Congress, which campaigned for parliamentary democracy and human rights in the 1990s – before Bhutan adopted a democratic constitution.

In every case for which Human Rights Watch obtained testimony, it was alleged that the prisoners were severely tortured at the time of their arrest and trial. “He was tortured by the army,” said the sister of a prisoner who was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to life. “They [the prisoners] were beaten and burned. When I met him, he was very sad, his eyes were full of tears.”

Under the Bhutanese legal system at the time, none of the accused had defense lawyers at their trials. In 2019 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention interviewed some of these prisoners, noted that under Bhutanese law they have “no prospect” of being released alive unless they are granted an amnesty, and recommended that their convictions be reviewed.

A prisoner who met the Working Group told Human Rights Watch that guards had warned inmates not to tell the UN experts the truth about their treatment: “You have to live with us. They will leave tomorrow, so think wisely before speaking.”

The prisoners are prevented from making or receiving telephone calls to their families in Nepal, or other countries -- such as the United States, Canada, or Australia -- where refugees have resettled. They are also prevented from sending letters, and their families do not know whether the letters they send are delivered. This causes great distress to the prisoners themselves, and their loved ones, who don’t know what condition they are in.

Bhutan’s legal philosophy is guided by Buddhist principles emphasizing concepts such as “compassion.” The country is now a parliamentary democracy, but King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is still uniquely empowered to release these prisoners. It can be done. In 1999, his father King Jigme Singye Wangchuck granted amnesty to 40 political prisoners. Only last year, the king granted amnesty to a political prisoner serving a life term.

These cases belong to a different time, before Bhutan’s 2008 democratic reforms. Bhutan should let all the political prisoners return to their families.

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