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Rights activist whereabouts remains mystery

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The Royal Bhutan Army reportedly arrested an exile-based human rights activist who went missing mysteriously on October 16 from West Bengal, India.

According to SB Subba, Chairman of Human Rights Organization of Bhutan (HUROB), Lok Nath Acharya, 51, last telephoned him in the morning of October 16 to inform that he was heading to Malbazar, West Bengal in India to attend a meeting.

None of the parties including Subba, family of Acharya or BNS could confirm the nature of the meeting, including the exact location and other attendees.

Subba further informed BNS that Acharya also stated that he was with Rinzin Dorji, President of the Democratic National Congress-D, an exile-based political party.

“I failed to establish contact when I telephoned him around 4pm. When contacted Dorji in the evening, he told me that he was at home the entire day and did not accompany Acharya that day,” said Subba, adding- “Since then we desperately started looking for him. A First Information Report (FIR) was lodged with the West Bengal police at Pradhan Nagar, Siliguri.” Subba has assured BNS that he will send a copy of the FIR soon.

Upon an inquiry of BNS, Dorji said that he was neither aware where Acharya was headed, nor did he meet him on October 16. Dorji said he is been constantly in touch with local authorities in Nepal to request them to help trace the whereabouts of Acharya.

Lok Nath Acharya. Photo/family source.
Lok Nath Acharya. Photo/family.

When pressed as to why he did not have any clues about what was unfolding despite the fact that Acharya talked about a well-being check after 1pm on October 16, Subba maintained that his impression was that Acharya was traveling with Dorji. “I thought they were together and that things would be okay.”

According to the HUROB Chairman, he recently received information from a reliable source that Acharya was taken by Samchi-based Royal Bhutan Army on October 16 from Malbazar, India.

He further added that Acharya was firstly taken to Samchi army camp by three individuals and kept there till October 18 before he was taken to Thimpu. It is not yet clear whether those individuals were army personnel.

Subba claimed that now Acharya is being kept in Rubina, an army jail in Wangdi Phodrang. It is also suspected that Bhutan army in connivance with the police of Malbazar took him.

Subba claimed that Acharya could have been arrested due to his affiliation with HUROB since 1990. According to Subba, Acharya used to be involved in gathering information from inside Bhutan in order for them to monitor political development and the state of human rights in the country.

HUROB feared that Acharya is kept in solitary confinement and his life is under threat, as no body has access to him.

“I call upon the international community, including the human rights organizations to help us fight for his protection from tortures and fair trial in the court for any allegations. HUROB calls for his immediate unconditional release,” said Subba.

Family fearful
Talking to BNS over the phone, North Dakota-based Hem Acharya, brother of the victim said his family has taken the whereabouts quite serious.

“We are having hard time to piece this together,” he said, adding—“Why would someone who is working in the field of human rights sector be arrested in a kidnapping fashion and that by a government claimed to be democratic”?

According to Hem, his brother had asked his sister-in-law on October 14 that she should take their 82-year ailing father to Kakadvitta –Indo-Nepal border, so that he could take him to a hospital for treating kidney related problem. When contacted on October 15, Lok did not answer the phone.

“Since there is no evidence that Loknath is actually inside prison, we have more questions than answers about his whereabouts,” Hem said.

Hem further requested the international human rights organizations, including the Amnesty International, among others to help his family trace the whereabouts of his brother.

“Even if he is put into prison, there is no guarantee he will have a fair trial. What is guaranteed though is severe torture.” Hem is equally concerned as to whether someone foul played and tipped-off the Bhutan army falsely.

Hem added that a source that do not want to be identified at the West Bengal police administration told him that his brother was drugged and dragged into a black SUV by three men and was driven away. The source, according to Hem, thinks the Bhutan army took him in connivance with the police of Malbazar.

BNS could neither confirm if Acharya was drugged, nor could it confirm it’s time and location independently.

He told BNS that he was deeply concerned about the safety of rest of his brother’s family members, including their parents currently languishing in camps.

“I kindly appeal to the UNHCR to address the security issues of my brother’s family members in camp.”

Formerly from Sarpang district in southern Bhutan, Acharya was living in Beldangi-II extension refugee camp in eastern Nepal.

Similar arrests and deportation stories
Bhutan is known to have a good record of arresting exiled political leaders or human rights activist in a strange fashion.

According to Amnesty International, human rights leader Tek Nath Rizal was arrested in Nepal in November 1989, along with Sushil Pokhrel and Jogen Gazmere, and handed over to the Bhutanese authorities. Ratan Gazmere, Vishwanath Chhetri and Bakti Prasad Sharma, who had assisted in the writing and distribution of the pamphlets, were also arrested at this time.

All six men were claimed by the Bhutanese Government to have organized a campaign of civil disobedience, involving acts of violence, protesting against the government’s policy of national integration.

They were detained in solitary confinement at Wangdi Phodrang prison—the same prison where Acharya is now reportedly detained. They were released on different time periods, and Rizal served the longest time in jail under harsh conditions.

According to an archived report of BNS, late RK Dorji, an exiled political leader, was arrested on April 18, 1997, by the Government of India at the behest of Royal Government of Bhutan to have him extradited to Bhutan, when he arrived in Delhi to garner support from the Government and the people of India for the Bhutanese peoples’ struggle for the establishment of democracy and human rights in Bhutan.

He was imprisoned for 14 months at Tihar jail, India and released on bail on July 12, 1998.

However, his bail condition prevented him from leaving Delhi without permission, and he had to report to the local police station twice a week. Later, the extradition proceedings against Dorji, the President of the Druk National Congress decided to withdraw the case by the Government of India.

In 2008, Assam police arrested the then general secretary of the Druk National Congress -Democratic (DNC-D) Tenzin Zangpo, and later deported to Bhutan. Indian media reports stated Zangpo was arrested in charges related to serial blasts in Assam on 30th October 2008 that killed about 80 people. However, Zangpo’s deportation had raised serious concerns when he was deported to the Bhutanese authority without any trial in Indian soil. His whereabouts is still a mystery even to his family members.

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