(New York) – A released political prisoner from Bhutan has described severely declining conditions for the country’s unjustly held political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. Bhutan imprisons at least 36 people, including one woman, convicted of political offenses following unfair trials that frequently relied on confessions coerced under torture.
Madhukar Monger, who was released in August 2023 after serving 29 years in prison after confessing to distributing political literature, told Human Rights Watch that the remaining political prisoners face food shortages and have inadequate medical care. Concerned governments should press for the immediate release of the political prisoners held in violation of their human rights.
“Bhutan’s government has sought to cultivate its global image by espousing ‘gross national happiness,’ but its treatment of political prisoners tells a different story,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck should exercise compassion and his sole authority to grant amnesty to these unjustly held prisoners and release them.”
Most of Bhutan’s political prisoners belong to the country’s marginalized Nepali-speaking community and were convicted of prohibited political activity between 1990 and 2008. Bhutanese law defines a “political prisoner” as “any person convicted for conspiring, attempting, soliciting, abetting or committing offenses against the Tsa-Wa-Sum [king, country, and people].” Many are serving sentences of life without parole, and they are all denied contact with their families or the outside world, in violation of international standards. When foreign diplomats have raised concerns about their cases, Bhutanese authorities denied these prisoners’ existence.
Monger, now aged 57, fled Bhutan with his family in 1990, when around 90,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese were forced to leave the country as refugees. He said he returned to campaign on behalf of the banned Bhutan People’s Party and was arrested and tortured by the army in February 1994. A court sentenced him, then age 26, to 31 years in prison for “anti-government activities,” following a trial at which he had no defense lawyer. He was released around one year early after paying a fine of 21,000 Bhutanese ngultrums (US$250).
Monger was held in a section of Chemgang prison, near the capital, Thimpu, known as the “anti” block, short for “anti-national.” He said the authorities refer to the political prisoners as “rajbandi” (state or royal prisoners) and the guards address them as “traitors.”
Monger said that the conditions for political prisoners have declined “drastically” in recent years. The authorities cut the monthly rice ration from 20 kilograms to 12, wheat flour from 6 kilograms to 1.5, and lentils from 3 kilograms to 2. Prisoners also receive a small weekly allowance of fresh meat and vegetables. Monger said that although the rations are inadequate, prisoners sell a portion of their allowances to police and prison guards in order to buy medicine and clothes, which the authorities do not provide.
He said that at the time of his release, at least four prisoners in the “anti” block had serious health problems, including one who received back surgery twice for a condition that the prisoners believe resulted from torture, and three who are regularly hospitalized for chronic conditions.
The authorities have not provided the prisoners with new bedding or clothing since before the Covid-19 pandemic, Monger said. Chemgang is cold for much of the year. The authorities have denied prisoners family visits since the beginning of the pandemic and have long prohibited phone calls and letters.
Human Rights Watch published a report in March identifying 37 political prisoners including Monger, most of them held at Chemgang but also at other prisons. Monger said that following the report’s publication, government officials visited the prisoners several times and told them that they would be “released soon.” However, none aside from Monger is known to have been released.
Bhutanese civil society activists said that there have been efforts to modernize the legal system since 2008, when a new constitution was introduced. However, the government continues to treat human rights issues as “highly sensitive” and there is little or no public discussion of the political prisoners. Human Rights Watch wrote to the government of Bhutan on November 7, 2022, concerning the prisoners but received no response.
Under Bhutanese law, a person serving a life sentence can only be released if the king grants an amnesty. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2019 that “those detainees serving life sentences have no prospect of release, with the exception of amnesty.” In 2022, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck granted amnesty to one political prisoner serving a life term. In 1999, his father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, granted amnesty to 40 political prisoners, including some serving life sentences.
Monger is currently in a refugee camp in Nepal, while his family has moved to the United States under a resettlement program for Bhutanese refugees. The governments of Nepal and the United States, with the assistance of the United Nations Refugee Agency, should promptly assist him to rejoin his family, Human Rights Watch said.
“At least 36 people remain in prison for their alleged political activities seeking democratic choice, which Bhutan’s multiparty constitution has recognized since 2008,” Ganguly said. “The Bhutanese authorities should release these prisoners now and reunite them with their families.”