A Sarchop in Tihar Jail

What was the Bhutanese Home Minister doing for so many days in Delhi? He left empty-handed and a dissident leader lives to fight another day.

In 1989, Teknath Rizal, a Bhutanese dissident who had taken shelter in Nepal, was kidnapped by the Panchayat-era authorities and handed over to Thimphu´s security officials who waited by a Druk Air jet at Kathmandu airport. Tek Nath Rizal has been in a Bhutanese jail since, declared a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International. An identical modus operandi almost played itself out in mid-April this year when a Druk Air plane was commandeered by Thimphu´s Home Minister, Dago Tshering, and waited on the tarmac at New Delhi´s Indira Gandhi International Airport. The minister´s mission, to spirit home a Bhutanese dissident, whom the Indian Government had detained following an extradition request made by Bhutan. But the ending turned out to be different this time.

As soon as the New Delhi police arrested Rongthong Kunley Dorji on 18 April, the Bhutan Solidarity Group based in the city got active and immediately filed a habeas corpus petition with the Delhi High Court, thus preventing the Ministry of External Affairs from deporting Mr Dorji without due process. This put a spanner in the works, and Minister Tshering had to return home alone, but not before his plan of action had created enough problems for Mr Dorji.

Non-Lhotsampa Dissident
Thimphu´s powers-that-be have no reason to like Rongthong Kunley Dorji. In 1991, the businessman from East Bhutan was arrested on charges of consorting with Lhotshampa (i.e. Southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin) dissidents and imprisoned for almost two months. After his release, Mr Dorji along with his family fled the country and took up lodgings in Kathmandu. In 1994, Mr Dorji established the Druk National Congress (DNC) and earlier this year took up leadership of the newly formed United Front for Democracy (UFD), a five-party Bhutanese opposition grouping which sought to bring together the bickering exile leadership under one umbrella.

Mr Dorji´s nuisance value is very well recognised by the Bhutanese state. He belongs to the Sarchop community, the largest of the three main population groups in Druk Yul, the others being the Ngalong who provide the ruling elite, and the Lhotshampa. Mr Dorji´s leading the opposition UFD tends to undermine Thimphu´s claim that the "democratic movement" against it is inspired and guided by "ngolop" (anti-national) Nepali-speakers.

The Bhutanese authorities responded by trying to weaken Mr Dorji´s standing. Various charges of fraud and non-repayment of loans have been levelled against him, besides accusations of conspiring against the state, of subversion, and so on. Interestingly, it is these very political charges – and India´s enviable tradition of judicial due process – that may yet save Mr Dorji from being sent back to a Bhutanese gaol.

South Asian Cooperation
It happened this way. On 20 December 1996, an application seeking an arrest warrant against Mr Dorji was made to the High Court of Bhutan, which obliged by issuing the papers the same day. The warrant wanted him back in Bhutan to answer for:

  • Commission of offense against the state under Sections 6, 7 and 8 of the National Security Act.
  • Commission of offenses amounting to fraud and non-repayment of loans under Sections NGHA 4-10 and 4-14 of the Loan act.
  • Commission of fabricated allegations and threats under Section NA 1 of the Thrimzhung Chhenpo [legal code].

The next step was to seek India´s help in snaring Mr Dorji, for Nepal was not likely to comply with an extradition request. It was well known that Mr Dorji often travelled to India to raise support for his cause. The 1949 treaty of peace and friendship between Bhutan and India stipulates that India will hand over Bhutanese citizens accused of crimes "in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Extradition Act".

On 12 February, Minister Tshering made a formal request to India seeking the arrest and extradition of Mr Dorji. In a letter to the Indian ambassador in Thimphu, he lists the charges of fraud, etc, against Mr Dorji, adding that he "has been engaged in conspiracy and unlawful activities against the State for which he is required for prosecution."

Confident that the Indian authorities would follow through with the request, Mr Tshering was in Delhi on 17 April, the day Bhutanese intelligence had informed the Indian authorities that Mr Dorji would be arriving there from Kathmandu.

The Indian authorities were most accommodating towards the Bhutanese minister. On the same day as his arrival, N. Ravi, joint secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs who had earlier served in the Indian mission in Thimphu, wrote to a counterpart in the Home Ministry asking that Mr Dorji be detained. His letter says that Mr Tshering had made a request for extradition "at the command of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan".

If Mr Dorji had arrived by air as expected he would most probably be languishing in a Bhutanese prison at present, for it would have been just a matter of picking him up as he alighted from his Kathmandu flight and depositing him with Minister Tshering. Instead, he came by train and it was only the next evening that he was located and detained by the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO), New Delhi. Mr Dorji´s refugee colleagues believe that had there been night landing facilities at Bhutan´s Paro airport, he would have been flown out the same night. Since this was not the case, Mr Dorji had to be kept in Delhi overnight and by the next morning the High Court had begun seeking his whereabouts.

The detention order requires a detainee to be at the FRRO´s disposal, and so in this particular instance Mr Dorji´s was kept at the Lampur Sewa Sadan, a beggars´ home about 60 km away from New Delhi. The FRRO explained the detention in the following words: "According to them [Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs], Sh. R.K. Dorji is Chairman of the U.D.F. [sic], Bhutan, the avowed aim of which, is to seek a change in the system of governance in that country. The pursuit of the aims of this Organisation, especially on Indian soil, would affect in an adverse manner the close and friendly relations that exist between India and Bhutan for the last many decades. According to them it is not possible for the Govt. of India to tolerate any form of anti-Bhutan activity by any person from within the territory of India."

The FRRO´s order was challenged by Anand Swaroop Varma of the Bhutan Solidarity Group in the habeas corpus petition arguing that since Mr Dorji is a Bhutanese citizen and the 1949 treaty allows Bhutanese citizens free movement in India without visas or travel permits, FRRO had no jurisdiction over Mr Dorji. While hearings on this were going on, the High Court ordered that Mr Dorji be produced before a magistrate to decide whether he had committed an extraditable offence or not. Accordingly, the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM) of Delhi took up the case.

Extradition Act
So far, the Indian government counsel has not produced any document before the ACMM to support the charges against Mr Dorji. He has pleaded that the papers from Bhutan are being awaited. Regardless, with her 2 June ruling, the Magistrate remanded Mr Dorji to judicial custody and sent him to New Delhi´s Tihar Jail under Article 34 (b) of the Act which states: "On receipt of an urgent request from a foreign state for the immediate arrest of a fugitive criminal, the Central Government may request the Magistrate having competent jurisdiction to issue a provisional warrant of arrest of such fugitive criminal."

Mr Dorji´s lawyers have challenged the court order on the grounds that since the charges against him are of a political character, extradition proceedings against him go against the Extradition Act. They point out Chapter V, 31 (a) of the Act which expressly forbids the surrender of a fugitive if the offense "is of a political character" or if he is able to prove that "the requisition or warrant for his surrender has, in fact, been made with a view to try or punish him for an offense of a political character".

This provision in the Act had earlier prompted the ever-imaginative Bhutanese authorities to come up with a new arrest warrant to replace the 20 December 1996 document. The political charges were dropped in this "revised" warrant, issued by the Bhutanese High Court 25 April 1997. The Court now wanted Mr Dorji for:

…committing offenses amounting to fraud and non-repayment of numerous loans under Sections NGHA 4-10, NGHA 4-14 and NGHA 4-17 of the Loan Act, sections DA 2-8, NA 1-2 and PA 14 of the Thrimzhung Chhenpo, and defamation and criminal intimidation under Section NA 1-1 of the Thrimzhung Chhenpo.

The defence lawyers have questioned the validity of the "revised" warrant which the Court has accepted. They argue that the conjuring up of the new warrant itself casts serious doubt on whether Bhutan will honour the terms under which Mr Dorji would be deported. For Chapter V, 31 (c) of the Extradition Act states that a fugitive criminal shall not be surrendered "unless provision is made by that law of the foreign State…that the fugitive criminal shall not be determined or tried in that State for an offense other than (i) the extradition offense in relation to which he is to be surrendered or returned".

Faux Pas
Rongthong Kunley Dorji´s case has put the spotlight on India regarding its Bhutan policy. Amnesty International (AI) has expressed concern that the new warrant could have been presented to circumvent the provisions of the Indian Extradition Act, 1962 and that Mr Dorji may be tortured if he is extradited. And, although AI is about the only international body to have spoken out, Western embassies in New Delhi have finally begun to show an interest in the refugee situation and Bhutanese dissidence. Earlier, it was only the Western embassies in Kathmandu that were considered ´sensitive´ to the issue.

Mr Dorji´s supporters are confident that he will not be sent back to Bhutan. The ACMM can place him in custody only for 60 days, that is until 1 August, under the provisional warrant issued. If the promised papers do not arrive from Bhutan by then (and they had not at press time), Mr Dorji will have to be released. But, whether the papers arrive or not, Mr Dorji´s lawyers are preparing to fight the case in the High Court charging that the entire process of his arrest was, among other things, "malafide, wrong and fraudulent".

It now looks as if the 60-day period will be allowed to pass before Mr Dorji is freed. By not sending in the documents, Bhutan seems willing to let the matter lapse. The entire episode has ended a diplomatic faux pas as far as Thimphu is concerned, for it has created a victim´s halo around Mr Dorji, has attracted the attention of the Delhi embassies, and seems to have given a fillip to opponents of the Druk government, particularly among the Sarchops of the east. Unwittingly, too, South Block may have done the Bhutanese refugees a favour at a time when their movement was going nowhere. Rongthong Kunley Dorji is not an unknown quantity anymore.

Thimphu will have to wait for another opportunity to lay its hands on Mr Dorji. This adventure has proved more costly than it had bargained for.

Refugee Has Her Day

While a Bhutanese dissident counts his days in the summer heat at Delhi´s Tihar Jail, another refugee is feted in the West.

Mangala Sharma, described by the Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory as a "small, bright-eyed woman from Bhutan", became the first recipient on 14 May in Washington DC of Amnesty International´s newly instituted Ginetta Sagan Award for Human Rights of Women and Children. Ms Sharma received the award for helping "women abused and traumatized by civil strife…from Bhutan for her ethnicity."

Meanwhile, Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr of San Francisco signed a proclamation declaring 23 May 1997 "Mangala Sharma Day". Although not of earthshaking import in the day-to-day life of that city, was this symbolic affirmation of the existence of a refugee community which otherwise is all but invisible in the world stage?

Mr Dorji still awaits his day in court, while Ms Sharma has been granted political asylum in the US.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian