Nepal | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Nepal received a downward trend arrow because of civil liberties restrictions imposed by the government following increased attacks by left-wing rebels.


Civil liberties in Nepal were in limbo after the constitutional monarch, King Gyanendra, in late November declared a state of emergency and ordered the 50,000-strong army to fight a Maoist insurgency that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since 1996. Wielding a new antiterrorism law, authorities rounded up dozens of lawyers, students, teachers, journalists, and other Nepalese suspected of being members or supporters of the Maoist group, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Amnesty International reported. Press reports suggested that by year's end the government had also shut down up to 30 trade unions, student groups, and other organizations allegedly linked to the Maoists.

The king's orders came three days after the Maoists broke a four-month ceasefire and less than six months after Gyanendra came to the throne following a palace massacre that killed King Birendra and nine other royal family members. The emergency measures restrict freedoms of the press, assembly, and movement. Announced by the government the same day, the antiterrorism law allows authorities to detain suspects for up to six months without trials. The insurgency and royal killings crimped tourism, trade, and industry.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified this Himalayan land in 1769. Following two centuries of palace rule, the left-leaning Nepali Congress (NC) party won Nepal's first elections in 1959. King Mahendra abruptly dissolved parliament and banned political parties in 1960, and in 1962 began ruling through a repressive panchayat (village council) system. Many parties went underground until early 1990, when the NC and a coalition of Communist parties organized pro-democracy rallies that led King Birendra to legalize political parties that April. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in the prime minister and cabinet and turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy. The king can wield emergency powers and suspend many basic freedoms in the event of war, external aggression, armed revolt, or extreme economic depression.

In Nepal's first multiparty elections in 32 years in 1991, Giraja Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government. Riven by intraparty conflicts, the NC was forced to call early elections in 1994 that it lost to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML.

The Communists, however, failed to win a majority in the 205-seat parliament, which allowed the small, pro-monarchist National Democratic Party (RPP) to use its swing votes to broker the rise and fall of successive governments. Hopes for more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in elections held on May 3 and May 17, 1999. The NC won 111 seats; CPN-UML, 71; RPP, 11; and four smaller parties, 12. Turnout was 66 percent. The campaign centered on the problems of rampant official corruption, stagnant economic growth, the Maoist insurgency, and the continued presence of a decades-old Indian security post in Kalapani in far western Nepal.

The government's November 26 decision to use the army to fight the Maoists marked a sharp escalation in the conflict. As the army's supreme commander, the late King Birendra resisted the government's requests to use soldiers to suppress the Maoists. Though the Maoists have caused severe hardship in remote areas, analysts say the rebels are unlikely to topple the government in Kathmandu because the army is too strong. The state of emergency, meanwhile, will lapse after three months unless endorsed by parliament. If approved, it can last for up to six months, renewable only once for an additional six months.

Gyanendra acted after the rebels broke a ceasefire on November 23 with attacks on army posts in northeastern Solukhumbu district that left up to 200 people dead, mostly rebels. Led by Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the insurgency has affected more than half of Nepal's 75 districts. The Maoists say they want an end to the constitutional monarchy and the feudal structure that persists in many parts of the country.

The Maoists had agreed to a ceasefire after Sher Bahadur Deuba, 55, in July became Nepal's 11th prime minister since the country's democratic transition began in 1990. The rebels apparently believed that Deuba, who was prime minister from 1995 to 1997, would be more flexible in negotiations than was his predecessor, veteran NC leader Koirala. The NC forced Koirala to stand down amid the continuing Maoist threat, a bribery case related to the illegal leasing of a passenger jet for state-run Royal Nepal Airlines, and fallout from the royal massacre. Koirala was widely criticized for the government's delay in releasing information about the June 1 palace killings. An apparently drunken Crown Prince Dipendra shot to death his parents-the late king and queen-and seven other members of the royal family before killing himself.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nepalese can change their government through elections, but face restrictions on many basic rights. Elections are free though not entirely fair because of irregularities or violence in some districts. In the 1999 elections, interparty clashes led to several election-related deaths and caused balloting to be postponed in dozens of districts. The 205-seat house of representatives is directly elected for a five-year term.

Under elected governments, Nepal's average income, literacy rate, and health indicators have shown gains. Wages, however, have remained largely stagnant in real terms, rampant corruption and smuggling have stunted economic development, and, according to local press reports, criminal gangs have penetrated politics. The government has made few reforms to Nepal's bloated, inefficient civil service, and ministries operate with little openness or accountability. Nepal's better-educated Brahmin, Chhetri, and in some cases Newari caste and ethnic groups continue to play leading roles in politics, the civil service, and the military, although poorer groups are increasingly gaining influence in government.

The supreme court "has demonstrated independence; however, lower level courts remain vulnerable to political pressure and bribery of judges and court staff is endemic," according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Nepal's human rights record in 2000. Corruption and the attitudes of officials largely prevent women from being able to secure their rights in courts, according to a 1999 report by the Kathmandu-based Institute for Legal Research and Resources. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects often spend longer in pretrial detention than they would if convicted of the crimes for which they stand accused, the State Department report said.

Nepal's human rights record has improved considerably since the absolute monarchy ended, but serious problems remain. Many of the most severe abuses relate to the Maoist insurgency. The Maoists have killed, injured, and kidnapped civilians including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties, particularly the NC and the CPN-UML, according to the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, and other sources. The rebels have also set up "people's courts" in some parts of Nepal that hand down summary justice. Adding to civilian hardship, the guerrillas fund themselves in part through extortion and looting. The Maoists reportedly also use children as soldiers, human shields, and couriers, the U.S. State Department report said.

Nepal's poorly equipped police force has been implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes, and torture of suspected Maoists and alleged supporters, the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, and other sources have reported. Domestic human rights groups accuse the government of using tough security laws like the Public Security Act (PSA) to deter villagers from supporting the Maoists. As of late 2000, authorities had arrested some 5,866 suspected Maoists or alleged followers under the PSA since the beginning of the insurgency, according to the State Department report. Authorities had released 4,182 detainees, with 1,684 remaining either in custody or pretrial detention. The PSA allows officials to detain suspects for up to six months without filing charges. In addition to using the PSA against alleged rebels, authorities have also occasionally detained peaceful protesters under this act and under the 1970 Public Offenses Act. That law grants Nepal's 75 appointed chief district officers powers to detain suspects for up to three months under court orders.

In ordinary criminal cases, police at times commit extrajudicial killings and disappearances of suspects in custody, the U.S. State Department report said. They also at times torture and beat suspects to punish them or extract confessions, the report added. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations and take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes handcuffed or fettered, according to the State Department report. Set up in 2000, the official Human Rights Commission has a mandate to investigate human rights violations but lacks enforcement powers and the resources to pursue cases in courts.

Conditions for journalists have worsened since the Maoist rebellion began. In recent years, authorities have detained several journalists on charges stemming from their coverage of the insurgency or for reporting allegations of police abuses and corruption. Immediately after King Gyanendra declared the state of emergency, authorities arrested ten journalists and computer operators from three leftist Kathmandu publications and warned the media to avoid any coverage that could "harm national dignity," according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Despite the risks involved, many of Nepal's hundreds of private newspapers and magazines vigorously criticize government policies. However, editors and writers at government newspapers such as the English-language Rising Nepal and the Nepali-language Gorkhapatra, both of which are major dailies, practice some self-censorship and generally slant coverage to favor government policies, the U.S. State Department report said.

In a society where only 38 percent can read, many Nepalese depend on radio for their news. The government owns the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage favors the ruling party. In a key ruling supporting press freedom, the Supreme Court in July declared unconstitutional a government ban on private FM radio stations broadcasting their own news programs. The government owns Nepal's sole television station, although two private cable networks serve the Kathmandu Valley. Both the constitution and the Press and Publications Act broadly suppress speech and writing that could undermine the monarchy, national security, public order, or interethnic or intercaste relations.

Nepalese groups ranging from diehard Communists to hard line monarchists frequently hold political rallies. Successive governments, however, have largely barred protests or other public criticism of China's occupation of Tibet and Indian abuses in Kashmir. The government generally allows political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) to function freely, although it enforces a constitutional ban on political parties that are based on religious, caste, ethnic, tribal, or regional lines. Moreover, both police and Maoist guerrillas occasionally threaten human rights activists to try to deter them from investigating rights violations, according to the U.S. State Department report. The insurgency has forced several NGOs working on agriculture and health projects in midwestern Nepal to curb their activities, the report added.

Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and the civil service, the U.S. State Department report said. Laws relating to property, divorce, and several other areas discriminate against women. The supreme court has declared unconstitutional many of Nepal's land laws, but the government has not reformed the affected statutes. Even where adequate laws exist, often they are not enforced. Particularly in rural areas, women face systematic discrimination that often prevents them from enjoying basic rights such as voting or holding property, according to the U.S. State Department report.

Studies and newspaper reports suggest that domestic violence and rape continue to be serious problems. The government has taken few steps to curb violence against women or assist victims, and authorities generally do not prosecute domestic violence cases. Organized gangs each year traffic some 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese girls to work in Indian brothels, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Most victims are from the Tamang and other minority communities. Because the majority of prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned and are unable to obtain help to rebuild their lives.

Abortion is illegal, and Nepal's jails hold many women convicted of murder for having abortions or committing infanticide. Some of the inmates are rape victims who terminated their pregnancies. In 40 percent of marriages the bride is under the age of 14, according to Unicef.

Members of the Hindu upper castes largely dominate parliament and the bureaucracy, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service, courts, and government offices, the U.S. State Department report said. The government in August formally banned discrimination against members of the lowest caste and said it would move to end the caste system. Although the constitution describes Nepal as a Hindu kingdom, the actual percentage breakdown between the Hindu majority and the considerable Buddhist minority is unknown. The country has more than 75 ethnic groups that speak 50 different languages.

Nepalese officials at times extort money from or otherwise harass Tibetan asylum seekers who cross the border into Nepal, according to the U.S. State Department report. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans escape into exile via Nepal each year, with most ending up in India. Nepal also provides asylum to some 97,000 Bhutanese refugees.

While export-oriented carpet factories have reduced sharply their use of child workers, smaller carpet factories and several other industries continue to depend on child labor. Up to 40 percent of Nepalese children work, although 60 percent of those who work also attend school, according to a 1996 ILO study. However, the ministry of labor's enforcement record is improving and the government has introduced a number of programs designed to reduce child labor, the U.S. State Department report said. In a related problem, Kathmandu and other cities have hundreds of street children.

Illegal bonded labor is common on farms in the lowland Terai region, the western hills, and the Kathmandu Valley, according to the U.S. State Department and press reports. The government in 2000 abolished the feudal Kamaiya system in the southern Terai that had kept an estimated 200,000 mainly lower-caste workers and family members in bonded labor. News reports, however, suggested that authorities failed to provide most freed laborers with land or housing, and many ended up as squatters on open fields.

Nepal's trade unions are independent, but they have notched up few real gains for workers. By law, workers in certain "essential services," such as water supply, cannot stage strikes and 60 percent of a union's membership most vote in favor of a strike for the strike to be legal. Authorities weakly enforce laws on working hours and health and safety standards, the U.S. State Department report said. Only about 10 to 12 percent of workers in the formal sector are unionized. Overall, more than 80 percent of workers are engaged in subsistence agriculture.