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Bhutan

Archeological exploration has indicated that the area of Bhutan was inhabited as early as 2000 BC. Aborigines known as the Monpa are believed to have migrated from Tibet, and the state of Monyul may have formed from 500 BC TO 600 AD. A Buddhist sect known as the Drukpa (Dragon people) provided the dominant and unifying religion. Under a theocratic government formed by a Drukma monk, Bhutan was unified as one country in 1616, a country with two leaders. One leader was the spiritual leader called the Dharma Raja and the other was the civil government leader called the Deb Raja. The Deb Raja signed a peace treaty with the English East India Company in 1774, but British troops invaded the country in 1865. This touched off a pro-British vs. anti-British rivalry within Bhutan, which culminated in a victory for the pro-British governor of Tongsa whose name was Ugyen Wangchuck. After the death of the Dharma Raja, in 1903, Ugyen Wangchuck became the first hereditary Druk Gyalpo (King)in 1907, ending dual leadership in Bhutan. The British agreed to pay a subsidy to the monarch in exchange for cooperation. Ugyen Wangchuck was followed by three successive hereditary heirs, including the current monarch. In 1949, Bhutan and Britain signed a treaty that increased the British subsidy, recognized sovereignty, and expanded duty-free trade between the two countries. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, whose reign began in 1972, has continued a program of modernization that his father, the previous monarch, began. Reforms included abolishing slavery and the caste system, emancipating women, enacting land reforms, and establishing diplomatic ties with non-Asian countries. More recently, reforms have also included a movement toward democracy. The movement for democracy originated in a human rights crisis of the 1990s. Bhutan faced serious political problems in the early 1990s. The Nepalese minority in southern Bhutan had been a source of serious ethnic disturbances and even terrorist acts, and its demands for greater participation in the political process had been on the rise since the mid-1980s. The threat to the indigenous population of gradually being outnumbered by politically active immigrant Nepalese was raised for Bhutan's leaders. The question of how to modernize the nation politically also remained a crucial one, and Bhutan's independence and sovereignty hung in the balance as the 1990s progressed. Some 100,000 civil service employees who were Nepali immigrants fled the country, taking up residence in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. While Nepali underground groups claimed the refugees were being expelled, the government of Bhutan argued that refugees were being incited to leave by these groups, and that these groups were trying to destabilize the country in order to gain greater power for the Nepali in Bhutan. In the final analysis, more democracy resulted when, in 1998, King Wangchuck provided democratic reforms by giving the legislature the right to remove the King and appoint a cabinet. Progress was made in year 2000 with bilateral talks between Nepal and Bhutan on the refugee issue. Despite these reforms, there is yet today no written constitution to protect fundamental political and human rights in Bhutan, and the judiciary is not independent of the King. The last half of the twentieth century was a momentous period in Bhutan's long historical development. The nation moved from a traditional system of governance to a de facto constitutional monarchy while retaining its firm Buddhist religious basis. Physical isolation was overcome with major road construction and advances in telecommunications that linked the various parts of the country and gave greater access to the outside world. International air travel brought tourism and greater amounts of foreign exchange needed for economic development. Having observed the problems encountered by other developing nations, Bhutan sought a more controlled economic and infrastructure development with the assistance of major foreign and international organizations. Once exclusively reliant on India for trade and aid, the kingdom broadened its import/export base and diversified its sources of economic assistance markedly during this period.

CRIMINAL CODES

Bhutan's civil and criminal codes are based on the Tsa Yig, a code established by the shabdrung in the seventeenth century. The Tsa Yig was revised in 1957 and ostensibly replaced with a new code in 1965. The 1965 code, however, retained most of the spirit and substance of the seventeenth-century code. Family problems, such as marriage, divorce, and adoption, usually were resolved through recourse to Buddhist or Hindu religious law. In modern Bhutan, village heads often judged minor cases and district officials adjudicated major crimes. Arrests can be made only under legal authority. Exile, stated as a punishment in the 1953 Constitution of the National Assembly, and its 1968 revision, is not used as a form of punishment, and mutilation was abolished in 1965. Fines, according to various reports, ranged from the equivalent of US$10 to US$55, and jail sentences from seven days to one month were levied against citizens who violated a compulsory but not widely enforced 1989 royal decree that they wear the national dress at formal gatherings to preserve and promote Bhutanese culture. With respect to international criminal law, in 1988 the National Assembly ratified a SAARC convention on terrorism, which Bhutan has consistently condemned in international forums. It provided for extradition of terrorists.

ETHNIC CLEANSING AND TERRORISM

Approximately two-thirds of the government-declared population of 600,000 persons is composed of Buddhists with cultural traditions akin to those of Tibet. The Buddhist majority consists of two principal ethnic and linguistic groups: The Ngalongs of the western part of the country and the Sharchops of the eastern part of the country. The remaining third of the population, ethnic Nepalese, most of whom are Hindus, live in the country's southern districts. Government efforts to institute policies designed to preserve the cultural dominance of the Ngalong ethnic group, to change citizenship requirements, and to control illegal immigration resulted in political protests, ethnic conflict, and repression of ethnic Nepalese in southern districts during the late 1980's and early 1990's. Tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese left the country in 1991-92, many of whom were expelled forcibly. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of mid-June 2000, 98,269 ethnic Nepalese remained in 7 refugee camps in eastern Nepal; upwards of 15,000 reside outside of the camps in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. The Government regards parties organized by ethnic Nepalese exiles--the Bhutan People's Party (BPP), the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP), and the Druk National Congress--as "terrorist and antinational" organizations and has declared them illegal. The Government maintains that some of those in the camps never were citizens, and therefore have no right to return. In 1998 the Government began resettling Buddhist Bhutanese from other regions of the country on land in southern districts vacated by the ethnic Nepalese living in refugee camps in Nepal, which is likely to complicate any future return of the ethnic Nepalese. The Government continues its negotiation with the Government of Nepal on procedures for the screening and repatriation of ethnic Nepalese in the refugee camps. A ministerial-level bilateral meeting in November failed to resolve disputes concerning the categorization of refugees in terms of eligibility for their eventual repatriation. The Government restricts worker rights. Although the Government does not use exile formally as punishment, many accused political dissidents freed under Government amnesties state that they were released on the condition that they depart the country. Many of them subsequently registered at refugee camps in Nepal. The Government denies this. Some or all of the approximately 75 prisoners serving sentences for offenses related to political dissidence or violence, primarily by ethnic Nepalese during 1991-92, may be political prisoners. On December 17, 1999, the King pardoned 200 prisoners to mark National Day; all reportedly were released. Among them were 40 persons convicted of "antinational" offenses, including Tek Nath Rizal, a prominent ethnic Nepalese dissident, and internationally recognized political prisoner. He was convicted in 1992 of "antinational" crimes, including writing and distributing political pamphlets and attending political meetings. In 2000 Rizal was granted permission to leave the country to receive medical treatment in India. He has since returned to the country. According to AI, property confiscated from Rizal during his arrest has not been restored to him. According to one credible human rights source, until recently the Government systematically arrested and imprisoned Tibetan refugees crossing the border with Tibet. This policy was followed under a tacit agreement with China. So invariable was this policy that Tibetan leaders advised refugees not to use routes of escape through Bhutan, and refugees have not done so for several years. Since Tibetans effectively are the only refugee population seeking first asylum in the country, the issue of first asylum did not arise during the year 2000.

INCIDENCE AND TRENDS IN CRIME

No statistics on crime have been reported by Bhutan police to the United Nations; however, the United States State Department asserts that there is relatively little crime in Bhutan, though petty crime, such as pickpocketing and purse snatching, is occasionally reported.

POLICE

The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP), assisted by the Royal Bhutan Army (including those assigned to the Royal Body Guard), and a national militia maintain internal security. The Royal Bhutan Police was established with personnel reassigned from the army on September 1, 1965, a day thereafter marked as Police Day throughout Bhutan. Starting with only a few hundred personnel in 1965, by the late 1970s the force had more than 1,000 constables and officers. Recruits--grade six graduates and above--were trained at the Police Training Centre in Zilnon Namgyeling, Thimphu District, and, after 1981, at a police training center in Jigmiling, Geylegphug District. The curriculum consisted of weapons training, tae kwon do, physical training with and without arms, law, simple investigation techniques, "turn-out drill," check-post duties, traffic control, public relations, and driglam namzha. Recruits were also trained for other unspecified duties and to escort important visitors. Since the establishment of the police force in 1965, Indian police advisers and instructors have been used. Starting in 1975, Bhutanese instructors, trained in India for one year, began training recruits at the Zilnon Namgyeling Police Training Centre. Advanced training for selected police officers in fields such as criminology, traffic control, and canine corps has taken place in India and other countries. In 1988, following specialized training in India, a female second lieutenant established a fingerprint bureau in Thimphu. Besides having access to training at the Indian Police Academy in Hyderabad, some students were also sent to the Police Executive Development Course in Singapore. Besides performing their standard police functions, members of the Royal Bhutan Police also served as border guards and firefighters and provided first aid. In 1975, in response to the increased number of traffic accidents resulting from the development of roads and the increase number of motor vehicles, the police established an experimental mobile traffic court staff with Royal Bhutan Police personnel and a judicial official to make on-the-spot legal decisions. Organizationally subordinate to the Royal Bhutan Army, the Royal Bhutan Police in 1991 was under the command of Major General Lam Dorji, who was also chief of operations of the army, under the title inspector general or commandant. There are police headquarters in each district and subdistrict. Some members of these forces committed human rights abuses. Arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems, and reports continue of torture and abuse of detainees. Impunity for those who commit abuses also is a problem. The law prohibits torture and abuse; however, human rights advocates state that in practice the security forces ignore these provisions. No one was prosecuted in connection with violating prohibitions against torture during the year. In 1999 and 2000 there were reports that security forces stopped ethnic Nepalese refugees attempting to return to the country, beat them or tortured them, and sent them back across the border. Refugee groups state that this has discouraged others from trying to return to the country. Refugee groups credibly claim that persons detained as suspected dissidents in the early 1990's were tortured and/or raped by security forces. During those years, the Government's ethnic policies and the crackdown on ethnic Nepalese political agitation created a climate of impunity in which the Government tacitly condoned the physical abuse of ethnic Nepalese. The Government denies that these abuses occurred but also claims that it has investigated and prosecuted three government officials for unspecified abuses of authority during that period. Details of these cases have not been made public. There are no laws providing rights of privacy. According to human rights groups, police regularly conduct house-to-house searches for suspected dissidents without explanation or legal justification.

DETENTION

Arbitrary arrest and detention remain problems. Under the law, police may not arrest a person without a warrant and must bring an arrested person before a court within 24 hours, exclusive of travel time from place of arrest. However, legal protections are incomplete, due to the lack of a fully developed criminal procedure code and to deficiencies in police training and practice. Incommunicado detention, particularly of Nepalese refugees returning without authorization, is still known to occur. Incommunicado detention of suspected militants was a serious problem in the early 1990's, but the initiation of ICRC prison visits and the establishment of an ICRC mail service between detainees and family members has helped to allay this problem. Of those detained in connection with political dissidence and violence in southern areas in 1991-92, 29 continue to serve sentences after conviction by the High Court.

COURTS

The legal system of Bhutan is based on Indian law and English common law. There is no written constitution, and the judiciary is not independent of the King. Judges serve at the King's pleasure, and the Government limits significantly the right to a fair trial. In April 2000, the Government established the Department of Legal Affairs as a result of a review of the Basic Law. Programs to build a body of written law and to train lawyers are progressing. Trials in the 1980s were public, and it was the practice of the accuser and the accused each to put their cases in person to judges. There were no lawyers in Bhutan's legal system until the 1980s, and decisions were made on the facts of each case as presented by the litigants. Judges appointed by the Druk Gyalpo were responsible for investigations, filing of charges, prosecution, and judgment of defendants. Serious crimes were extremely rare throughout the twentieth century, although there were reports of increased criminal activity in the 1980s and early 1990s with the influx of foreign laborers, widening economic disparities, and greater contact with foreign cultures. The highest-level court is the Supreme Court of Appeal--the Druk Gyalpo himself. The Supreme Court of Appeal hears appeals of decisions emanating from the High Court (Thrimkhang Gongma). In 1989 the High Court, which was established in 1968 to review lowercourt appeals, had six justices (including a chief justice), two of whom were elected by the National Assembly and four of whom were appointed by the Druk Gyalpo, for five-year terms. Each district has a magistrate's court (Dzongkhag Thrimkhang), headed by a magistrate or thrimpon, from which appeals can be made to the High Court. All citizens have been granted the right to make informal petitions to the Druk Gyalpo, some of which have been made reportedly by citizens who flagged down the Druk Gyalpo's automobile as he toured the nation. Judges are appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Chief Justice and may be removed by the King. Village headmen adjudicate minor offenses and administrative matters. An Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) was established in March 2000. The responsibilities of the OLA are to conduct state prosecutions, draft and review legislation, and render legal counsel. By September a department head and all staff were in place. The OLA is composed of a Legal Services Division (which eventually is to become the Ministry of Law and Justice) with domestic, international, and human rights sections; and a Prosecution Division (which eventually is to become the Attorney General's office), with a criminal section and a civil section. Criminal cases and a variety of civil matters are adjudicated under a legal code established in the 17th century and revised in 1958 and 1965. State-appointed prosecutors file charges and prosecute cases for offenses against the State. In other cases, the relevant organizations and departments of government file charges and conduct the prosecution. Defendants are supposed to be presented with written charges in languages that they understand and given time to prepare their own defense. However, according to some political dissidents this practice is not always followed. In cases where defendants cannot write their own defense, courts assign judicial officers to assist defendants. There have been reports that some defendants receive legal representation at trial, and that they may choose from a list of 150 government-licensed and employed advocates to assist with their defense; however, it is not known how many defendants actually receive such assistance. A legal education program gradually is building a body of persons who have received formal training abroad in the law. For example, the Government sends many lawyers to India and other countries for legal training; 54 persons have completed legal studies abroad, and 43 more are enrolled. Village headmen, who have the power to arbitrate disputes, constitute the bottom rung of the judicial system. Magistrates, each with responsibility for a block of villages, can review their decisions. Magistrates' decisions can be appealed to district judges, of which there is one for each of the country's 20 districts. Defendants have the right to appeal to the High Court and may make a final appeal to the King, who traditionally delegates the decision to the Royal Advisory Council. Trials are supposed to be conducted in open hearings, but there are allegations that this is not always the case in practice. Questions of family law, such as marriage, divorce, and adoption, traditionally are resolved according to a citizen's religion: Buddhist tradition for the majority of the population and Hindu tradition for the ethnic Nepalese. Nonetheless the Government states that there is one formal law that governs these matters.

CORRECTIONS

Prison conditions reportedly are adequate, if austere. Visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the opening of a new prison in Thimphu (in 1994) contributed to improving conditions of detention. However, human rights groups active outside the country maintain that prison conditions outside of the capitol city of Thimpu remain oppressive.

WOMEN

There is no evidence that rape or spousal abuse are extensive problems. For example, in 1999 there were 10 reported rapes nationwide. In the south, in the early 1990s, there were widespread reports of the rape of large numbers of ethnic Nepalese women, including by government forces. The Government denied these reports. In 1996 the National Assembly adopted a revised Rape Act. The law contains a clear definition of criminal sexual assault and specifies penalties. In cases of rape involving minors, sentences range from 5 to 17 years. In extreme cases, a rapist may be imprisoned for life. There are few known instances of sexual harassment. Polygamy is allowed, provided the first wife gives her permission. Marriages may be arranged by the marriage partners themselves as well as by their parents. Divorce is common. Existing legislation requires that all marriages must be registered; it also favors women in matters of alimony.

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Dr. Robert Winslow
rwinslow@mail.sdsu.edu
San Diego State University