“不丹公开宣扬的‘国民幸福总值’原则并未顾及这群被不当定罪而在狱中度过数十寒暑的政治犯，” 人权观察南亚区主任米纳克希・甘古利（Meenakshi Ganguly）说。“不丹当局应正视漫长刑期对这些囚犯及其家属造成的伤害，并予以紧急补救。”
其余5名囚犯属于沙乔普人（ Sharchop，意为“东方人”）社群。这四男一女因涉嫌联系被查禁的不丹国民大会党（Druk National Congress）而被捕，该党倡导议会民主制和人权保障。
据社运人士消息，丹巴・辛・普拉米（Dambar Singh Pulami）在2001年从尼泊尔难民营返回不丹“查看家产”时被捕，后以“勒索、绑架、谋杀和颠覆活动”判刑43年，并因身患重病于2022年5月入院治疗。
Political Prisoners in Bhutan: A History of Discrimination
The population of Bhutan includes three communities that have different religious traditions and ethnic origins, and traditionally speak different languages.
The politically and culturally dominant Ngalop, who are traditionally concentrated in the central and western regions, speak Dzongkha and mostly follow Tibetan Buddhism. The royal Wangchuk dynasty belongs to the Ngalop community and became hereditary kings of Bhutan in 1907. The current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, came to the throne following the abdication of his father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 2008 – the same year that Bhutan adopted parliamentary democracy under constitutional monarchy.
The Sharchhops, concentrated in eastern Bhutan, are descendants of early migrants from Tibet to what is now Bhutan. They traditionally speak Tshangla, and many of them practice Tibetan Buddhism. Some of them joined a campaign for political democracy in the 1990s by the now banned Druk National Congress.
The Nepali-speaking community, known as Lhotshampas, migrated to Bhutan in the 19th century and settled in the then largely uninhabited southern part of the country. Lhotshampas are predominantly Hindu. By the late 1970s the Ngalop establishment had come to see this population as a threat to Bhutan’s cultural identity and to their own dominant position. The government introduced a series of discriminatory citizenship laws, stripping many Lhotshampas of their citizenship, as well as “Bhutanization” laws aimed at enforcing a version of national identity based on Ngalop culture and language.
Protests against these policies broke out in 1990. The police arrested thousands of people who were accused of taking part in the protests, which the government deemed anti-national. Many were tortured and ill-treated. By late 1990, Nepali speakers began to flee Bhutan and within two years about 90,000 Bhutanese refugees were in camps in Nepal. Over the ensuing two decades this population expanded. Between 2008 and 2015, over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees who had been living in the camps in Nepal were resettled in third countries, primarily the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Primarily in the 1990s, but up until 2008, the Bhutanese authorities arrested and prosecuted dozens of people for their alleged participation in protests and other alleged “national security” offenses. Many remain imprisoned.
Human Rights Watch was able to identify 37 political prisoners still in prison in Bhutan. Between April and December 2022, Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 former political prisoners and 8 relatives of current prisoners, as well as exiled activists who were able to confirm the identities of those in prison.
Under Bhutan’s 2009 Prison Act, political prisoners are supposed to be held at Chemgang prison and separated from other prisoners. However, Bhutanese authorities provide no information on current political prisoners, and except for a UN working group visit in 2019, there have been no independent inquiries into the prison population. As a result, the Human Rights Watch figure may be an undercount.
Human Rights Watch carried out some interviews with the assistance of the Global Campaign for the Release of Political Prisoners in Bhutan. Human Rights Watch also interviewed former prisoners, witnesses, and relatives of prisoners in the Beldangi refugee camp in Nepal.
Current and former inmates alleged that the authorities routinely used torture and other ill-treatment to compel detainees to confess to actions that they denied, to make their statements at trial correspond to the prosecution’s allegations or the testimony of other defendants or witnesses, or as a form of punishment.
One prisoner described torture by Bhutanese soldiers after his arrest in 2008:
They [Bhutanese soldiers] arrested us and took us to their barrack, and for 20 days they treated us mercilessly. They used to tie us, and using cane sticks they would beat us continuously on our entire body, but particularly on the bottom of our feet. They beat us so much on our feet they became senseless after a while. They also immersed us in ice cold water. After that they tied our hands and legs for nearly seven days. After seven days they finally gave us some fried corn. They didn’t even allow us to sleep. After that, they prepared a statement as per their own wish and thought, not based on what we said.
The coerced “evidence” was then used at their trial.
They brought us to the district court. The judge asked us, “Do you have anything to say?” So we gave them our statement in writing. But there was no use of that submission. They used their own statements instead.
Those arrested in the 1990s experienced some of the worst abuse. Former prisoners said that during that period torture methods commonly used included chepuwa, which involved crushing the thighs between pieces of wood; beating prisoners then putting them in a sack and taking them away in a vehicle, creating the fear of extrajudicial execution; and the use of stress positions and barbed wire that would leave the prisoner bloody as their strength failed.
“For three years I couldn’t change my clothes, or wash my hands or face,” said Mangal Dhwoj Subba, a former political prisoner who was detained from 1990 to 1998. “They would beat me up, so I confessed, although it wasn’t true.”
Another former political prisoner, Dil Kumar Rai, said that during his interrogation, police and soldiers jumped on his chest, causing pain that recurred for six or seven years. He was shown instruments used for torture including sticks and an electric iron, and believed that detainees were sometimes extrajudicially executed, so he made a confession.
Man Bahadur Rai, a former political prisoner, said that as a 16-year-old, he had participated in the 1990 protests, and later became a refugee in Nepal along with his family. He returned to Bhutan in 1996 for a personal visit and was arrested. He said that during six months in police custody his hands were continually handcuffed except when he was eating, and he was beaten with “whatever they could find,” especially when he refused to admit to things he had not done. Nevertheless, he confessed only to acts of disorder during the 1990 protests in which he said he did participate, and was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
A political prisoner imprisoned from 2006 to 2014 said that during his first six months in army custody he was beaten while being interrogated in a language he couldn’t understand. If he became unconscious during the torture, he said, the soldiers revived him with cold water.
A prisoner who was jailed in 2008 said:
They took me to the local police station. They tortured me for almost two weeks before starting the legal process. Once it [the case] was registered to a court it took five months for trial, and I was tortured quite severely when my statements didn’t match [those of the prosecution]. They used wooden batons. I was handcuffed in front of my body and told to squat on the ground. A soldier would put his leg between my cuffed hands then beat me on the back.
These accounts are consistent with those of the family members of prisoners who remain in prison. “He was tortured,” said the wife of a prisoner who was arrested and convicted in 2008. “I saw his body covered with marks from beating on his back.”
“He was tortured by the army,” said the sister of another prisoner who was arrested in 2008 and remains in prison. “They [the prisoners] were beaten and burned. When I met him, he was very sad, his eyes were full of tears.”
The mother of a man who had been imprisoned since 2008 said she had seen scars on his wrists from being tightly bound for six months and that he said he had been severely beaten, given food mixed with dirt, and locked in a small toilet room for an extended period. The sister of another man who has been in prison since 2008 said her brother is now deaf in one ear because of the beatings he received during his first six months in custody.
Violations of Fair Trial Rights
In 2019, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention interviewed several people then imprisoned under national security legislation. The Working Group found “a number of due process violations when the individuals had been tried some 25 years ago. The Working Group is aware that, at the time, there were no legal practitioners in the country.”
There were no defense lawyers to represent the accused during the period these prisoners were put on trial. All the prisoners Human Rights Watch interviewed said that they and their co-defendants had represented themselves, and that all the lawyers involved in their trial acted on behalf of the government. Former prisoners said that they were produced in court and asked to confirm prosecution statements that had been coerced under torture.
A prisoner who was convicted of national security offenses in the early 1990s called his trial a “farce,” saying, “They forced me to confess to false charges.” Another prisoner, convicted in the early 1990s and sentenced to 24 years in prison on charges he denies, said that police would “torture people when they came back from court in the evening if they denied charges. So out of fear we would confess.… There wasn’t a system with lawyers.”
Former prisoners were sometimes unable to describe the offense for which they had served long sentences, in recognizable or specific legal terms. Similarly, families of serving prisoners said that they have not been provided with any official documentation.
Access to an attorney of one’s choosing and adequate time and resources to prepare a defense are fundamental to the right to a fair trial. Several prisoners who were compelled to represent themselves appeared to have little understanding of court procedure. One said that at the end of his trial he signed the court’s verdict although he was unable to read it and did not know what it said.
A prisoner interviewed by the UN Working Group in 2019 told Human Rights Watch:
We could not talk to them [members of the Working Group] openly. The prison officers came and threatened us before the meeting saying, “Look, you have to live with us. They will leave tomorrow, so think wisely before speaking.” … We did sit with the UN arbitrary detentions team during the meeting, but we were too scared to speak openly about realities and show them the true picture.
Twenty-five political prisoners are held in a dedicated block at Chemgang Central Prison. Ten other political prisoners are at Rabuna, a secretive facility used to imprison former soldiers and government officials accused of treason, but information on conditions there or at other prisons where political prisoners may be held is not available.
Prisoners said that their segregated block at Chemgang consists of about 16 cells arranged around an outdoor area. Six cells have toilets while 10 have buckets for that purpose. Prisoners are locked inside their cells from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. Bedding, including bed covers, is at times completely inadequate in the generally cold climate.
Several said they suffered severe and persistent mental health problems due to the conditions. One woman said that she had found her brother unwell when the family had visited him at Chemgang and had offered to bring medicines. “Police take relatives’ [telephone] numbers and say, ‘We’ll contact you if he gets sick,’ but they never do,” she said.
In 1994, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) began visiting prisoners held under national security laws in Bhutan. Former prisoners said that there was a significant improvement in political prisoner welfare at Chemgang after the ICRC’s visits but that the conditions declined since the visits ended in 2012.
Many prisoners said that the conditions had worsened in the past year. Information obtained by Human Rights Watch in March 2022 indicated that the prison authorities “have made cuts to the food supplies as compared to before.” Another source said, “They have almost stopped giving any clothes to the prisoners. It is very cold. We used to get firewood during the winter but that has been reduced.”
A current prisoner told his brother about bad conditions in 2022. “Supplies are low,” the brother said. “They have insufficient food. There are no new blankets or mattresses.”
Prisoners are prevented from making or receiving telephone calls to Nepal or other countries where refugees have resettled. Prisoners are also prevented from sending letters, and their families do not know whether the letters they send are delivered. The lack of communication causes anguish to both the prisoners and their families.
Although family visits to inmates were impossible due to the Covid-19 pandemic, when Bhutan closed its borders, the families sometimes received information through prisoners who were allowed to make brief telephone calls to relatives in Bhutan.
In late 2022, humanitarian agencies resumed the process of attempting to arrange family visits with prisoners. However, some refugee families who have resettled as far away as Australia, Canada, or the United States have not been able to make any contact with their imprisoned relatives for years. A currently serving prisoner said he and other prisoners have fallen completely out of contact with their families: “We have no idea. We knew they were in Nepal before. We used to receive letters and even send some letters through the Red Cross, but now even that has stopped.”
Three refugee families chose not to be relocated to a third country, remaining in the now sparsely populated Beldangi refugee camp in Nepal to be closer to their relative imprisoned in Bhutan. “I can’t leave without my son,” said Dambar Kumari Adhikari, the mother of Om Nath Adhikari, a political prisoner. “When we go to see them they seem hopeful that maybe they’ll get released soon. That’s the reason we haven’t left, we’re waiting for them.”
Domestic Legal Standards
Bhutan was an absolute monarchy until 2008, when it adopted a new constitution defining the kingdom as “a democratic constitutional monarchy.” The constitution declares that “[t]he State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” Among the internationally recognized human rights protected by constitutional provisions are nondiscrimination and equality before the law, fair trials, and the prohibition of torture.
Bhutan’s legal system is guided by Buddhist principles emphasizing concepts such as “compassion.” Bhutan is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but it is bound by customary international human rights law as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Many political prisoners are held under Bhutan’s National Security Act (NSA) of 1992, which superseded the 1957 law. The NSA’s vague and overbroad provisions forbid treasonable acts against the Tsa-Wa-Sum (“king, people and country”). The law does not define “treasonable acts” or what would constitute “betrayal” or “harm to the national interest.”
Court papers relating to the national security trials that took place in 2008 show that, in addition to offenses under the NSA, defendants were also convicted of parallel offenses under the Penal Code. These include treason (article 327) and terrorism (article 329), which are first-degree felonies punishable by 15 years to life in prison (article 8). Defendants were also charged with possession of illegal weapons (articles 478 to 483). Bhutan abolished the death penalty in 2004.
A uniquely Bhutanese legal institution is kidu, which equates to concepts of “welfare” or “relief.” The king may grant kidu as well as “amnesty, pardon and reduction of sentences.” The Sentencing Guideline of Judiciary of Bhutan, 2022, states that an offender “sentenced to life in prison shall remain in prison until he or she dies or until pardoned or otherwise commuted to a fixed period, or receives Royal pardon, amnesty or clemency.” The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2019 that “those detainees serving life sentences have no prospect of release, with the exception of amnesty.”
- Quash the convictions and release political prisoners who were prosecuted for exercising their fundamental human rights and freedoms or were convicted on the basis of forced confessions and other serious fair trial violations.
- Provide prompt and adequate remedies to current and former prisoners who suffered torture and other ill-treatment in custody.
- Ensure that all prisoners get basic standards of care including food, adequate bedding, warm clothes, and medical treatment.
- Invite international humanitarian agencies to the prison system and give them full and unrestricted access to prisoners.
- Invite UN special procedures and other experts to advise on reforming the justice system and ensuring prisoner welfare.
- Review the National Security Act and amend it to comply with international standards on human rights protections.
To the United Nations, donors, and concerned governments:
- Raise human rights concerns, including the treatment of prisoners, in discussions with the Bhutan government.
- Publicly call upon Bhutan’s government to comply with fundamental international human rights standards, including the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, fair trial standards, and the humane treatment of prisoners.
- Expedite the resettlement of released former prisoners to enable them to unite with their families, without regard to national security convictions in Bhutanese courts that did not meet international fair trial standards.