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“Political prisoners in Bhutan are in awful conditions”

Ram Bahadur Rai was among around 90,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people who were forced to flee the country around 1990 due to violence and persecution under the government at that time.

New York, United States: A man who served 30 years in a Bhutanese prison for distributing political pamphlets has said that political detainees like him are surviving on meager rations and are reduced to using rice sacks for clothing and bedding, Human Rights Watch said.

Ram Bahadur Rai, 66, spoke with Human Rights Watch after he was released after completing his sentence on July 5, 2024, and immediately expelled from the country. At least 34 prisoners convicted of political offenses are still believed to be in Bhutanese prisons. 

The tiny Himalayan kingdom has been a multi-party democracy since 2008, but it continues to hold people imprisoned earlier who were regarded as opponents of the former autocratic system.

“Bhutan’s government cultivates an enlightened international image by propounding the theory of ‘gross national happiness,’ but the blatantly abusive treatment of these prisoners tells a different story,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While the Bhutanese government attempts to strengthen its ties with international partners, foreign governments and multilateral organizations should push for the release of political prisoners.”

In 2023, Human Rights Watch documented 37 inmates classified by Bhutan’s government as “political prisoners,” who were first detained between 1990 and 2008. Following the release of three people who completed their sentences in the past year, it is believed that at least 34 remain, many imprisoned for life without parole. Under Bhutanese law, only King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck can commute a life sentence.

Ram Bahadur Rai was among around 90,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people who were forced to flee the country around 1990 due to violence and persecution under the government at that time.

Following his release from prison, he told Human Rights Watch that in 1994 he had returned to Bhutan and was involved in distributing pamphlets on behalf of a banned organization called the Bhutan People’s Party in the border town of Gelephu when he was arrested. He said he was then accused in a “fabricated” case of participating in political violence.

Rai said that before and during his trial, at which he had no defense lawyer, he was tortured so severely that he was hospitalized, only to be returned to jail and further tortured. By the time he was convicted and sentenced to 31 years and 10 months in prison, he said the torture had left him unable to write his own application for an appeal. The appeal was rejected, and he was warned that if he appealed again his sentence could be increased.

Rai said that since 2012, when the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stopped arranging family contact for national security prisoners in Bhutan, he had had no communication with his family. Upon his release, he sent a photograph to his four children “so they can know what their father looks like.”

In Chemgang prison, near the capital, Thimphu, Rai was held in a block with 24 other prisoners termed “anti-national” by the Bhutanese authorities. Describing conditions there, he said, “It’s a very painful situation. The facilities have almost halved since the Red Cross left [in 2012].”

Prisoners are obliged to buy their own medication if they fall sick and can wait up to eight months if they need to see a doctor, meaning they frequently receive no treatment. Several are in “very poor” health, Rai said.

He said that after the ICRC’s engagement ended, guards had taunted the prisoners: “We are your parents now, we are your everything.”

Food rations have been reduced to half their previous level. Prisoners are supplied with a blanket every three years and a mattress every 18 months, although it is of such poor quality that it is “unusable after a month or two.” Rai said the clothes they are provided are too small. “We collected rice sacks to use for clothing and bedding.”

Rai said that the Bhutan Red Cross Society, which is supposed to have taken over the duties of the ICRC in supporting prisoners’ welfare, “don’t do anything” and that the remaining prisoners had asked him to appeal for the ICRC to resume its engagement.

Bhutan’s treatment of these men, who were convicted following torture and unsafe trials, is a stain on the reputation of the government, Human Rights Watch said.

Bhutan’s legal system is formally based on concepts in the Buddhist tradition such as compassion. The king, who is head of state while most government functions are the responsibility of an elected government, retains the power to grant “kidu,” or relief, including by commuting sentences.

“King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck could end the unjust suffering of these prisoners and their families with a stroke of a pen, as both he and his father have previously done in other cases,” Ganguly said. “Sixteen years since Bhutan’s transition to democracy, all of the remaining political prisoners should finally be released.”

From Human Rights Watch