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Journalist freed, appeals UNHCR for reunion with family

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Bhutanese authorities finally released Shanti Ram Acharya, a reporter of The Bhutan Reporter—a publication that later was transformed into BNS. He was released on June 13, 2014 as he completed seven and a half years of jail term clamped by Bhutan’s kangaroo court.  We failed to contact Acharya immediately despite repeated attempts; thus the filing of this late report.

According to the court documents, Shanti Ram allegedly carried out ‘criminal and subversive activities against the Tsa-Wa-Sum’ under the Penal Code of Bhutan 2004. Then in his early 20s, the royal army arrested him on January 16, 2007 in Tashilakha under Chhuka district, South West Bhutan.

Acharya before he was arrested. Photo/family.
Shanti Ram Acharya before he was arrested. Photo/family.

Talking to BNS over the phone from Jhapa, Nepal for the first time after his release, Acharya strongly denied his involvement in such activities as claimed by the Royal Bhutan Army. He said he was denied an opportunity for a fair trial.

“I was severely tortured at least six hours per day and continuously for a week once in the jail,” said Acharya. He further stated that the authorities tortured him in the first week of his arrest. “I did not have an option than to confess to the charges.”

Acharya added that he now suffers from heart disease and doctors have said that this sickness has to do with facing both physical and mental torture while in prison.

“I would like to especially thank former chief editor of The Bhutan Reporter, where I had worked briefly, and his team for continuously advocating my release. His reporting in the international media about my arrest made such a significant impact and that the international rights bodies, in particular Red Cross, among others monitored my situation,” said Acharya, adding- “Too long list to mention, I am also equally thankful to the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Federation of Journalists, Media Helping Media and all other individuals and groups involved in covering the news and or advocating my release.”

Upon a query made by BNS, Acharya described the current jail condition in Bhutan being very pathetic. “They are crowded. Buckets serve as toilets. Prison lacks access to better health care.”

Meantime, Acharya, who now lives with a distant relative near the refugee camps in Jhapa, says he has no place to call home. “All my relatives including my ailing mother have been resettled in Texas, United States. I am homeless. I am very frustrated. I am too weak to build my own future now due to my deteriorating health condition. I have my entire life ahead of me.”

“I kindly request the UNHCR to help me reunite with my family through resettlement. The Bhutanese government framed me and I am not a ‘terrorist’. I went to Bhutan just to visit my relatives.”

Soma Wati in her daughter's house in Charlotte, NC. Photo/TP Mishra.
Soma Wati in her daughter’s house in Charlotte, NC in Jan 2014. Photo/BNS

Mother concerned about reunion
Talking to BNS from Texas, Soma Wati Acharya, mother of Shanti Ram said she is too concerned about his youngest son’s health and resettlement. “When I talk to him over the phone I feel like he is very frustrated.”

“I hope I will see him one day,” she said, adding—“I appeal the UNHCR and IOM to help us reunite with him.” Soma Wati further added she is relieved that her son is finally out of prison but she is concerned about their reunion.

In an interview with BNS in January 2014, Soma Wati had said, “my hope for reunion with my youngest son will continue anyway.”

BNS welcomes the release
In a statement issued, BNS has welcomed the release of Acharya. It further said the agency is concerned about the deteriorating health condition of its former reporter.

“We knew he was tortured and we had condemned such acts of the authorities in the past, but we never knew he was tortured this severely that led to the heart disease.”

BNS further said that it’s shameful on the part of the Bhutanese authority to torture an innocent individual to this level. “Now that he is released, we hope the UNHCR will expedite his resettlement process so that the healing process will begin once he reunites with the family.”

BNS also expressed its gratitude to all individuals and organizations involved in advocating his release. “At this time we are quite not sure in what ways we can help this reporter who once actively contributed towards exiled journalism, but we will keep exploring all options to help him in whatever ways possible.”

Back to journalism
Acharya, on the meantime, expressed his deep interest in reporting for BNS. “Now that I am released, I have realized that the world has moved faster and that I need to learn internet/computer skills,” said Acharya, adding—“once I healed a bit I will start reporting.”

Some of our past coverages on his arrest

Mishra contributed this news report from North Carolina. Mishra, also one of the former chief editors of The Bhutan Reporter monthly, where Acharya worked briefly in the past, has done dozens of coverages on his arrest both in national and international media, including BNS. The latest was a feature story in January 2014 where he talked to Acharya’s mother.

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