Kathmandu, Jan 21st 2009 A 20-year-old exiled journalist of Nepali origin has been sentenced to jail for seven and a half years for terrorist activities by the royal government of Bhutan even as the party in question denied having any links with him.
Shantiram Acharya, who used to work for the Bhutan Reporter, a monthly newspaper brought out amidst great hardship by Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal, received the sentencing by Bhutan's high court for being allegedly involved in subversive activities against the Druk kingdom, including participating in military training conducted by the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist Leninist Maoist) in Nepal, an armed underground organisation that is banned in Bhutan and believed to be operating from Nepal and India to end Bhutan's hereditary monarchy.
According to the Association of Press Freedom Activists (APFA) Bhutan, an exiled Bhutanese media group based in Kathmandu, Acharya, a Bhutanese of Nepali origin who was living in the refugee camps in eastern Nepal, was arrested in 2007 when he visited Bhutan to meet his relatives.
Acharya was kept in secret detention for almost two months and tortured by police to extract a confession, APFA said. According to the exiled media group, the Bhutan police charge sheet said he was arrested for taking photographs of an outpost of the Royal Bhutan Army.
APFA also said it believed Acharya was convicted because he could not hire an attorney to defend him as Bhutan does not have any independent attorney. Also, he had no money since he was produced in the court without the knowledge of his family members.
Though the Communist Party of Bhutan (Marxist Leninist Maoist), from whom Bhutan police said Acharya had received arms training, said it had no association with the exiled reporter, the denial was not heeded by the Bhutanese court.
Condemning the charges and the verdict by court, which APFA said was controlled by the state, the media group is asking the Bhutan government to open the case for review and let the 20-year-old hire an independent attorney.
It is also asking for the jailed journalist's whereabouts to be made public.
In November 2008, Bhutan was catapulted into world attention as it celebrated the crowning of its fifth king, the 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.
The crowning was projected as another step towards democracy by the isolated Druk kingdom as the previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, abdicated in favour of his son.
The change of guard is viewed with mixed feelings by over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin who have been languishing in Nepal for nearly two decades since their expulsion from Bhutan during a crackdown on ethnic communities.
While some of the refugees hope the new king will show a human face and re-open talks with Nepal for their repatriation, others however feel that the old king still continues to wield power and the abdication and drafting of the first-ever constitution are a facade to placate foreign donors who want Bhutan to respect human rights.