The call for Acharya’s release continues despite the Druk authority’s attempt to conceal the facts regarding the High Court’s one-sided-and-politically motivated-order to sentence him for such a long time without any genuine reason.
What crime has Shanti Ram Acharya committed so that the Bhutanese authority sentenced him for seven-and-a- half year? Does the authority have any strong and authentic evidence to charge Acharya’s involvement in subversive activities? Was he provided with access to an independent lawyer to plea?
On January 23, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called for the leniency for Acharya, 20, who was arrested by the Bhutanese security forces on January 16, 2007 at Tashilakha area on charges of being the member of underground outfit Communist Party of Bhutan. Showing worrisome at the High Court’s sentencing of journalist Acharya, the international media watchdog says “The IFJ urges Bhutan’s authorities to take a humanitarian view of the case of Acharya and review the harsh sentence imposed on him.” (Link to IFJ Statement)
To note, the IFJ has also joined Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) Bhutan and other press freedom groups in calling on authorities to make public Acharya’s whereabouts and the conditions in which he is being held, and in urging a review in which Acharya is provided with access to an independent lawyer. (Click here for APFA Statement)
The coverage of news stories on sentencing Acharya by international media houses including the BBC world service reflects the fact that he is innocent and the authority’s decision is unfair. Ironically, none of the media bodies and house inside the country covered the plight of Acharya which have raised suspicion if the media are fairly working. In fact, all private and government media in Bhutan, until now has not changed their dogma to terming the dissident southern Bhutanese as anti-national or terrorists, undoubtedly the continued influences of the government on media. (Download Report by BBC)
Interestingly, the Bhutan Chapter of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), upon which media groups in exile had hopes for the working in favor of media freedom, remains mute as if to mean there is complete free press in Bhutan and that Acharya is not a journalist. SAFMA’s aims at strengthening networking among media stakeholders, especially working journalists, to improve professional standards through journalist’s education, training and capacity building and promotion of press freedom is hereafter questionable. This is because it failed to raise voice against authority’s decision to sentence a journalist for seven-and-half-year without justifiable reason. (Click to link SAFMA’s covergae)
Acharya, who had been to Bhutan to meet his relatives, was charged for entering the country for carrying out terrorist activities. Arrested on January 16, 2007, Acharya was produced before the court for preliminary hearing only on March 16. This is against the rights of the detainee. It is obvious he faced tremendous and inhumanly torture to confess the charges. Besides, it also explores the veracity of Bhutan’s weaknesses to respect and safeguard the fundamental rights and allow freedom of movement and assembly to its citizens as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
The High Court’s order reads, “The Court granted full opportunity and thoroughly considered the explanations made by the defendant concerning the guilty plea. He was given full opportunity to make all his submissions, which were given the utmost consideration. The Court awards seven years and six months imprisonment term in total to the defendant Shanti Ram Acharya, resident of Beldangi II, Sector D/1, Hut No.85, Jhapa, Nepal in accordance with §§ 127, 134, 329 and 330 of the Penal Code and § 211 of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code from the day he was arrested for the charges against him that have been proven.”
How can the Bhutanese court say that he was granted full opportunity to plea since the judiciary system in the country is still state-controlled? Undoubtedly, we can say that the basic norms to fair trail on the part of Acharya were a far cry since his relatives were not present, nor called by the authority, during the time of Acharya’s hearing on the court. Its definite Acharya failed to hire attorney for his defense for two reasons and these made him become the prey of Bhutanese regime. Bhutan does not have any independent attorneys to be hired by individual and lack of financial backup because he was produced at the court without the knowledge of his relatives and family members.
There are no any logical points to term Acharya a Maoist militant. The first of such reasons is; the Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM), issuing a press statement after his arrest, strongly refuted his affiliation to their party. (Download CPB-MLM statement)
Secondly, his nature, in accordance with his family members seems he is rather a journalist, if not at all, but having a keen interest in journalism. He worked with The Bhutan Reporter (TBR) monthly for six months and was subsequently working at Jagaran fortnightly, a Nepali-language newspaper published by exiled Bhutanese. He is also the founding editor for Baal Aawaj (voice of children), a children-related wall newspaper which used to be published with the financial support from Lutheran World Federation.
Thirdly, a sentence from the court order reads “After his (Shanti Ram) brother came to know that he had joined the Bhutan Communist Party, their relation was strained, as his brother scolded him for joining BCP.” Shanti Ram’s brother Devi Charan, 38, however, defends this very strongly. “He (Shanti Ram) always used to read newspapers and sometimes I too used to find his news and write-ups in refugee-run newspapers. I believe he was just a new media practitioner”, he says, adding- “How our relation could be strained?”
Ichha Poudel, the camp-based Associate Editor of the Bhutan News Service (BNS), informs that Shanti Ram’s mother Soma Woti, 60, could not react to his query due to long-possessed mental suffocation caused by son’s imprisonment inside cruel jails. “She continues dropping tears from her eyes and I turned myself helpless to seek her reaction”, says Poudel, adding that her health condition is gradually getting deteriorated due to tension after knowing about her son’s sentencing for seven-and-half-years.
Similarly, Devi Charan , elder brother of Shantiram, in an interview to BNS-run radio program Saranarthi Sarokar (Refugee Concern) at Nepal FM 91.8 in Kathmandu urges international rights groups for his early release. He says the authority’s decision of sentencing Shanti Ram for seven-and-half year was never a matter of ‘tolerance’ for his family. “We are barricaded from getting justice”, says Devi Charan, who immediately maintains that Shanti Ram was never affiliated to underground armed outfit. (Listen to Devi Charan)
The court order also claims that laws and charge sheets were read in Nepali language. However, in the Bhutanese court Nepali-language is never used in proceedings and there are no Nepali speaking attorneys. Most documents are prepared in Dzongkha, which many Nepali speaking Bhutanese do not understand. None of the evidence produced by the police speaks that Acharya had acted against Bhutan or Bhutan government. The only evidence that court rely upon was the statement by Acharya in police custody and subsequently repeating it at the court proceedings, which are questionable. The latest remarks by Police Chief Col. Kipchu Namgyal at the National Assembly session that Royal Bhutan Police cannot protect human rights and that a separate agency is required to look after the jail administrations vividly explains underlying truth about prevailing torture in Bhutanese jails in hands of the police officials.
Police charge sheet against Acharya says he was arrested for taking photograph of an outpost of Royal Bhutan Army with digital camera, which does not substantiate enough evidence to prove his guilt of acting against Bhutan. For sure, a journalist will take photos and this is his/her right. Not to an exception, it might have been a wrong place, an outpost of army, for taking the photos, thus, the Court’s order to sentence him for such a long time simply for taking photos, sounds illogical and immature decision.
It’s clear that Bhutanese media groups in exile will never give their pen a complete rest without the establishment of media freedom in Bhutan. Yet some answer-seeking queries are lying on the table of hot-debate: Is Shanti Ram suffering simply because he is a Nepali-ethnic Bhutanese? Is there a need for international rights groups to see if Bhutan, so claimed newest democracy, adheres by the norms of equality and equity for all ethnic groups?