After three years in prison without charge or trial, shackled most of the time and often in solitary confinement, Teknath Rizal was produced before Bhutan´s High Court late last year. Four years to the day since he was abducted by agents of the Royal Govern¬ment of Bhutan from his exile in Nepal, in a 250-page "reasoned judgement" — the words of the official paper Kuensel — the High Court sentenced Rizal to life imprisonment.
Whether the wider world knows of i t or not, Rizal is South Asia´s most significant political prisoner. While there obviously are political detainees serving time from Kashmir to Colombo, Rizal´s case is unique because it is a national Government that has put him behind bars.
A full bench of "honourable judges conducted the trial, which took place over a full year, with 33 hearings in which 15 witnesses testified against Rizal. The judges handed down the sentence of life imprisonment under the National Security Act of Bhutan of 1992, legislated three years after Rizal´s imprisonment.
Three days after the verdict, on 19 November, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was pleased to grant him "conditional clemency", which would be activated upon resolution of the southern problem.
Teknath Rizal became a member of Bhutan´s National Assembly in 1975, and was subsequently elected to the Royal Advisory Council in 1984 as representative (councillor) of the people of Samchi and Chirang districts, southern Bhutan. Rizal did not have formal education, and in 1980 the Royal Government sent him for ten months to Australia to study English. In his public career, Rizal was vocal in the interest of his constituents. In Thimphu, he was instrumental in raising issues of national concern such as border demarcation in the north, identity cards for all citizens, enhancement of foreign relations and opening new embassies abroad.
King Jigme personally liked Rizal. As even one Government document which denigrates Rizal says, "His Majesty the King always had the highest hopes and expectations from him as an official who could be trusted to play a constructive role in promoting the long term interest of the people and the nation."
When he was elected councillor, King Jigme appointed him head of an audit team to look into the finances of all development projects initiated after 1981. Rizal took his responsibilities seriously, and sought to bring to book those who had misappropriated government funds. High ranking and influential officials, including those with links within the palace, were directly and indirectly affected.
Among others, those who were troubled by Rizal´s zeal were Prince Namgyal Wangchuk (the King´s step-paternal uncle) and Princess Dechen Choden Wangmo Wangchuk (the King´s sister), who faced questions on misuse of foreign exchange earnings from the Penden Cement Authority (PCA). The then Managing Director of the PCA, Rinchen Dorji, also related to the royal family, was also involved. K.D. Tshering, a former Dzongdag (district officer) and brother of the deputy Horn e Minister Dago Tshering and Tshewang Penjore, another Dzongdag and a brother-in-law of the King´s Chief Secretary Zimpen Dorji Gyaltshen, too were investigated for misuse of funds.
Much of the Royal Government´s initial harsh treatment of Rizal can be linked to the resentment against him for the investigations and findings of the audit. A conspiracy was framed to indict and take personal revenge under the cover of Cabinet authority. Later, Rizal became the convenient scapegoat for, as well as focus of, dissident political activity.
While the audit was nearing completion, the Royal Government initiated a census enumeration in early 1988, under the 1985 Citizenship Act. The instrument pres-cribed a new set of criteria that contained near-impossible requirements as far as the Nepali-speaking citizens of southern Bhutan, the Lhotshampa, were concerned. The Act was designed and adopted covertly by the authorities with the goal of depopulating southern Bhutan through the means of depriving ethnic Nepalis of their citizenship.
As cases of official high-handedness to implement this Act increased, there was panic among the Lhotshampa.Reports of harassment reached the Nepali-speaking civil servants, including Teknath Rizal, in Thimphu. At the same time, the powers in Thimphu were proposing a one kilometre wide "green belt" in southern Bhutan, part of the Royal Government´s environmental rhetoric which, inciden tally, threatened to his place at least 30 percent of the ethnic Nepali settlements in South Bhutan. When this policy was rejected by the public as well as donor agencies, the authorities came up with a magical figure to claim that there were a hundred thousand non-Bhutanese in southern Bhutan.
As Mitsher- Kutchhap, people´s representative, in the Royal Advisory Council and as a Cabinet member, Rizal sought audience with King Jigme and apprised him of the problems the Lhotshampa were facing from the policies adopted and from over-zealous function¬aries. He spoke of serious ramifications of such ill-conceived policies and pleaded for immediate review of the situation. Rizal was commanded by the monarch to submit a report in writing. After consulting Lhotshampa bureaucrats in Thimphu, Rizal submitted apetition on 9 April 1988. King Jigme forwarded it to the Cabinet, which met on 1 June. Rizal was informed by the all-powerful Gup Wangchen, a royal attendant, that the King did not wish him to attend the Cabinet meeting.
To begin with, Rizal had made many enemies during the course of the audit and investigations. The Royal Gov¬ernment perceived that the absolute monarchy and the objectives of the vested interest groups and their privileges would be threatened in the event of a change in the system of government. The fears were compounded by the move towards pluralism the world over, and the agitations of the Gorkha National Liberation Front which had reached fever-pitch in neighbouring Darjeeling. It was therefore convenient for the Cabinet to be vindictive towards Rizal. The very act of presenting the petition was seditious, the Cabinet pronounced. It recommended capital punishment for violation of the Tsa-wa-sum — King, Government and Country.
Rizal was stripped of his public post. He was subsequently arrested, detained and tortured. After spending three days behind bars, he was released conditionally after being forced to sign a ´confession-agreement´. The constant surveillance he was under and the fear of being re-arrested with possibly fatal consequences convinced the 41-year-old Rizal to leave the country.
Prisoner of Conscience
At first, Rizal attempted to take shelter in India, particularly in Assam and Sikkim, However, friends and some prominent individuals, who were worried for his security, urged him to move to Nepal, which was how he came to take refuge across the border in the south-eastern Nepali town of Birtamod.
Meanwhile, within Bhutan the situation deteriorated as the regime introduced increasingly discriminatory programmes against the southern population. People were constantly emerging from Bhutan and apprising Rizal of the unfolding situation, which included the imposition of the dress code for the gho and kira, dropping of the Nepali language from the school curriculum, arrests, and harassment of the rural population. In exile, with the help of six other Bhutanese in exile, Rizal established the People´s Forum for Human Rights (PFHR). (Rizal´s naivete is reflected in the fact that he started a human rights forum in Nepal, a country where monarchy was then battling the forces of multi-party democracy.)
Rizal was abducted before his the PFHR could begin any serious activity. The Royal Government´s claim is that Rizal was extradited by Nepal, but there is no extradition treaty between the two countries. He was abducted along with Sushil Pokhrel and Jogen Gazmere on 16 November 1989 from Birtamod, Jhapa, by the Nepali police. In Kathmandu, the trio´s request for an audience with Prime Minister Marich Man Singh Shrestha was denied. Policemen in civilian outfits handed the three over to Bhutanese agents, led by King Jigme´s aide de camp, Col V. Namgyal, who were waiting on the Tribhuvan International Airport tarmac with a chartered Druk Air jet.
In Rizal´s absence, those in exile rallied behind PFHR, which was later renamed the Human Rights Organisation of Bhutan (HUROB) in 1991, with Rizal as its chairman in absentia. In May 1990, Amnesty International adopted Rizal as its "Prisoner of Conscience".
The House of Punishment
The structure and ethos of Bhutan´s judiciary are based on 17th century codes laid down by the country´s unifier,Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and the traditional practices of serfdom that existed in the country until 1907. Even though the codes were revised during 1953-57 by the National Assembly, they arenot in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international covenants on civil and political rights, nor any of other international juridical standards essential for the protection of citizens in a contemporary nation-state.
A court in Bhutan is called "Thrimkhang", literally, "house of punishments´. As the travails of Tek Nath Rizal indicate, the court does indeed dispense only punishment, not justice. As there is no written constitution to guide the judiciary, there is minimal protection for those accused of political offenses.
The judiciary was supposedly separated from the executive in 1968. Functionally, this has not happened. The judges, appointed by and accountable only to the King, are themselves responsible for all aspects of the case, including investigations, filing of charges, prosecution,and judgement. There is no provision for jury trial or the right to a court-appointed defence attorney. Nor does the system provide for lawyers or solicitors. There are only legal representatives, known as jabmi, who find i t extremely difficult to defend th e accused under the restrictive laws.
Bhutan Government´s education setup discourages students from taking up studies in law, and asa result there is not a single Bhutanese today who is professionally qualified to practice it. The only law graduate in Bhutan, Subarna Lama, is now a Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
None of the sitting judges in the High Court who handed down the life imprisonment on Tek Nath Rizal can be said to have any hold over the principles of jurisprud ence. Not only are these judges tragically incompetent on matters of law, they also lack the sense of service and commitment so necessary among those dispensing justice to provide effective remedy for acts that violate the rights of Bhutanese citizens. When someone is accused of a political offense, the learned judges take it for granted that he is guilty.
A glance at the background of the seven of the sitting judges in the High Court in Thimphu, may throw light on how the cards are stacked up against a political prisoner like Rizal.
Sonam Tobgye, Chief Justice — high school graduate D.N.Katwal — an eighth grader, former Director of Posts and Telegraphs
Karma Dorji Sherpa - a medical dropout and former Dzondag (District Officer). K.B. Ghaley - an eighth grader, a teacher, a former Gup (Village Headman) Dr. T. Yonten - a physician Chagay - an eighth grader Namgay - a former non commissioned officer in the Royal
This, then, is the lineup of individuals who, in a coun¬try that seeks to join the community of nations as an equal, in the name of the Tsa-wa-sum, sentenced Tek Nath Rizal to life imprisonment for treason on 16 November 1993.
Since his first arrest in 1988,Rizal has continuously requested an audience with the King, without success. While Rizal has been held practically incommunicado for over four years now, some information is available from those who have been incarcerated with him in Rabuna prison, Wangdi phodrang District. According to prison-mates who were released recently, Rizal is in good health and, while he does not know much about the details of the movement by Lhotshampa in exile, his thinking is as clear as ever on the need for human rights and respect of fundamental freedom in Bhutan.
Rizal is presently kept at Chemgang Centra] Prison, where most of Bhutanese political prisoners are presently housed. This prison is located near Simtokha Dzong in Thimphu.
After three years of keeping Rizal in solitary confinement, and probably concerned over its international image, the Royal Government finally produced Rizal before a court in 1992. The prosecution framed its case primarily on circumstances and incidents that occurred during Rizal´s long detention. The very fact that the conviction was under an act that was adopted by the Tshongdu (National Assembly) three years after Rizal´s arrest proves the shows the bonafide of the entire exercise.
Amnesty International´s request for permission to witness the trial was turned down by Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering. The 15 witnesses who took the stand against Rizal included: K.D. Chettri, a former Dungpa, sub district officer, who had absconded after having been charged with misusing substantial government funds and whose charges were dropped on his willingness to testify against Rizal; Doenarayan Katwal, a High Court judge and member of the Bhutanese team for bilateral talks with Nepal on the issue of Bhutanese refugees; Gagan Pradhan, a student who had left the country for fear of persecution in 1989 and later went back to Bhutan and is now absorbed in government service; and Narayan Giri, a former Gup of Sibsoo District who had left Bhutan fearing arrest in 1989. He was one of the main confidantes of the dissidents at the Garganda refugee camp in West Bengal before they moved to Nepal. Giri also re-entered Bhutan and is now a contractor.
The large number of charges put forward by the Government were not made subject to cross examination during the trial. The charges were that he had incited rebellion against the Tsa-wa-sum; sought to overthrow the legitimate and established government; tried to instigate the friendly people of India and Nepal against the Royal Government and create misunderstanding between donor countries and the Government; directed subversive activities; sowed communal discord between northern and southern Bhutanese; and written seditious booklets.
Rizal´s activities, his personality and the chronology of events during the crucial years 1987 to 1990 clearly show that the Royal-Government´s charges—of inciting rebellion, subversion and communal discord, trying to bring down the Thimphu government, and attempting to create misunderstanding with neighbouring countries and donor countries — are without merit. To put things in perspective, Rizal was abducted and detained prior to the mass uprisings that took place in Bhutan in September-October 1990. He had little or no role in the major information activities that have been taken up against the Bhutanese Government machine. Certainly,, he is innocent of any accusations of inciting anyone to violence, given that he has been behind bars since November 1989.
On the last charge, Rizal did help translate two booklets while in Birtamod, including Bhutan: Hamro Adhikar Khoi. This was a translation of Bhutan: We Want justice, which was written by Ratan and Jogen Gazmere, the politically active brothers from Samchi, with the help of two British volunteers working at the National Institute of Education. Both brothers were imprisoned with Rizal, but have been released and are in jhapa. The High Court justices seem not to have considered the legal implications of releasing the authors and convicting the translator.
The Government weekly Kuensei reported that "Teknath Rizal chose to defend the case himself rather than call a jabmi." This does not come as a surprise as it is not possible to get a jabmi (representative) to defend the accused under Bhutan´s restrictive laws, particularly in a case as sensitiveas Rizal´s. Also, the legal system does not provide for cross-examination of government witnesses. Rizal was hostage and victim of a show trial.
On 19 November 1993, just three days after the High Court´s handing down its judgement, King Jigme announced a conditional clemency for Rizal. The King proposes to release Rizal as soon as the southern problem is resolved. It is not clear what would constitute a resolution of the southern problem. Given the track record of the Royal Government thus far, Thimphu´s interpretation would probably mean allowing a trickle of the refugees to return, while hoping that delaying tactics will lead to the bulk of refugees assimilating among the larger Nepali-speaking population of South Asia.
Rizal, of course, is not available for comment regarding the High Court´s judgement and the King´s supposed magnanimity.
It seems that the Royal Government and King Jigme want to project Rizal as the pivotal personality in the drama that is being played out in the desperate hills of southern Bhutan, already emptied of a large chunk of their Lhotshampa population. As late as 20 November 1993, for instance, Kuensel was reporting that "Teknath Rizal is a central figure in the anti-government propaganda which surfaced after Bhutan began its first nationwide census in 1988." In its various publications, the Government has implicated Rizal in many more ´conspiracies´ than what the dissidents are capable of.
The fear must be that without a ringleader to point to, the Government´s propaganda about a Lhotshampa plan to bring down the Government might sound hollow. For this reason, even though Teknath Rizal might not be any of the things the Royal Government charges him with, it is important to keep him behind bars in order to maintain the fiction of an insurgency and a concerted plan of subversion. For the King and his Government, therefore, Rizal´s ongoing detention is a fig-leaf to try and hide the trumped-up charges against the Lhotshampa as a whole.
Rizal´s image as the central figure in the Bhutanese upheaval was projected more by the Royal Government than by the dissidents. By no stretch of imagination could anyone believe that as National Assembly member and Councillor Rizal was capable of plotting an overthrow of the Government. If there was a reason for the sudden crisis in southern Bhutan and the subsequent political fallout and creation of a refugee population of 100,000, it was due entirely to erroneous government policies and their implementation.
The sentence given to Rizal is also meant to show the Royal Government´s resolve to those living in exile in the refugee camps that resolution of their predicament is not in sight. The hope is that the Nepali-speakers will ultimately lose heart and give up on their hope of return to their villages. Meanwhile, in parallel with the life sentence, the conditional clemency comes handy to deflect international criticism.
Thimphu also obviously fears that Rizal´s presence in exile might help consolidate the hopelessly fragmented political groups in exile under one umbrella, to pose a serious threat to the regime. However, given the time required to build a political culture among people (viz, the refugees) that have been kept under such tight control, it is unlikely that Rizal´s presence in exile would consolidate the divergent forces into a single monolithic forum.
Some have wondered whether Rizal has the calibre to remain the symbol for Bhutanese in search of human rights and fundamental freedoms in their homeland. While he was not "politically ambitious" in the manner characterised by the Royal Government, the initiative Rizal took in starting a human rights organisation certainly shows his commitment. Rizal´s work in Bhutan was either supported or guided by people around him. His political personality has been moulded by circum¬stances and conviction. It is an open question whether, were he to be released by the Royal Government as per the royal clemency proviso, Rizal will continue to champion the cause of political reforms in Bhutan. His future actions would be guided by his conviction and commitment with regard to the democratic movement in Bhutan.
For the moment, through his tortured stay in prison, and the Royal Government´s claims on his guilt, Teknath Rizal has become the central figure in the four-year long, Bhutanese crisis.
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Penguin India withdraws The Hindus
On 11 February 2014, Penguin India decided to recall and destroy all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History. The decision was part of an agreement between them and Shiksha Bachao Andolan, a Hindu campaign group that filed a case against the publishers in 2010, arguing that the book was insulting to Hindus and contained “heresies”.
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