Skip to main content

Dear Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay,

Congratulations on becoming prime minister. As you once again assume government leadership, I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to draw your attention to some of the urgent human rights challenges facing Bhutan.

Human Rights Watch is an independent non-governmental organization that works in over 90 countries around the world, including the United States, India, and China. We have worked on human rights in Bhutan for several decades.

You noted in your election campaign that around one in eight Bhutanese are “struggling to meet their basic needs for food” amid “unprecedented economic challenges and mass exodus” of people moving abroad.[1] We welcome your commitment to address these problems. We urge you to ensure that all Bhutanese are able to access quality public services including health and education, and social security programs that ensure an adequate standard of living. We also urge you to ensure that major infrastructure projects, such as the proposed new “mindfulness city” at Gelephu, are implemented in a manner that upholds the rights of local people.[2]

We also wish to draw your attention to continuing violations of international law against so-called “anti-national,” “rajbandi” or “political” prisoners who are serving long sentences in Bhutanese jails. We urge your government to release these prisoners, ending a painful chapter of history which is at odds with the values espoused by the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Our research has identified at least 36 people convicted of political offenses following unfair trials that frequently relied on confessions coerced under torture.[3] Many are serving sentences of life without parole, and they are denied contact with their families or the outside world, in violation of international standards.

The conditions in which these prisoners are held have declined drastically in recent years. Food rations have been cut, yet prisoners are obliged to sell a portion of their food to police and prison guards in order to buy medicine and clothes, which the authorities do not provide. We understand that prisoners have inadequate means to stay warm, including inadequate bedding. At least four prisoners in the “anti-national” block at Chemgang Jail are believed to have serious health problems, allegedly resulting from mistreatment while in detention. Other “political” prisoners are held at Rabuna and elsewhere.

Prisoners in similar cases have been released by the Royal Bhutan Government in the past.  In 1999, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck granted amnesty to 40 political prisoners,[4]  including some serving life sentences. In 2022, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck granted amnesty to a political prisoner serving a life term.[5] The Kingdom of Bhutan is known around the world for espousing enlightened values, including of compassion and the pursuit of gross national happiness. We urge your government to uphold those values, as well as international legal standards, and end the suffering of these prisoners and their families. They should be freed.

Yours sincerely,

Elaine Pearson

Asia Director, Human Rights Watch

[1] “Bhutan’s People’s Democratic Party wins election in Himalayan kingdom,” Al Jazeera, January 9, 2024, (accessed January 19, 2024).

[2] “Gelephu Mindfulness City – a perspective,” Kunsel Online, December 30, 2023, (accessed January 19, 2023).

[3] “Bhutan: Free Long-Term Political Prisoners,” Human Rights Watch, March 13, 2023, (accessed January 19,2024).

[4] “Pardons Bhutan Pro-Democracy Leader After 10 Years in Prison,” UCA News, December 27, 1999, (accessed January 19, 2024); “Bhutan: Amnesty International welcomes release of prisoner of conscience, Amnesty International, December 21, 1999, (accessed January 19, 2023).

[5] “Six political prisoners released,” Bhutan News Network, April 16, 2022, (accessed January 19, 2023).

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country