Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Nepal's political rights rating declined from 6 to 5, and its status from Partly Free to Not Free, as a result of a February 2005 "palace coup" in which King Gyanendra dissolved parliament, assumed direct rule, and declared a state of emergency.
Conditions in Nepal deteriorated dramatically in early 2005, when King Gyanendra engineered a "palace coup" in which he dismissed the interim prime minister and government, assumed executive powers, and declared a state of emergency. In the crackdown that followed, hundreds of political leaders and activists were arrested and detained, while rights to freedom of expression, movement, and assembly were severely curtailed. The ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society actors to work effectively was particularly compromised. Meanwhile, the ongoing Maoist insurgency continued to destabilize much of the country. Maoist strikes, blockades, and violence directed at key business targets caused hardship for civilians and further crippled the economy. The rate of extrajudicial murders, abductions, and other human rights violations by both sides remained high, although some respite was provided when the Maoists declared a unilateral ceasefire in September. The dynamics of the conflict shifted somewhat in November with the announcement that the Maoists and an alliance of the seven main political parties had reached an agreement by which they would jointly press for an end to the absolute monarchy. However, an end to the political impasse remained remote at year's end.
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 he 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 prodemocracy rallies that led King Birendra to re-legalize political parties. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in the prime minister and cabinet and turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy.
In Nepal's first multiparty elections in 32 years, Giraja Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government in 1991. Riven by intraparty conflicts, the NC was forced in 1994 to call early elections, which it lost to the Communist Party of Nepal/United Marxist-Leninist, or CPN-UML. The Communists, however, failed to win a majority in parliament. Hopes for a more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in elections held in 1999. The campaign centered on the problems of rampant official corruption, stagnant economic growth, and the Maoist insurgency. Led by Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Comrade Prachanda), the Communist Party of Nepal/Maoist (CPN-M, or Maoists) insurgent group has said that it wants an end to the constitutional monarchy and the feudal structure that persists in many parts of the country.
In June 2001, Gyanendra ascended the throne after a bizarre palace incident in which the crown prince apparently shot to death the king and nine other members of the royal family before killing himself. After Sher Bahadur Deuba became interim prime minister in July, the rebels agreed to a ceasefire, but when they broke the ceasefire in November, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency. The government's subsequent decision to use the army to fight the Maoists marked a sharp escalation in the conflict; an estimated 5,000 people were killed in 2002, and Nepal's infrastructure and economy were severely damaged.
Political instability increased in May 2002, when Deuba dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections to be held in November. After Deuba, then acting as caretaker prime minister, asked the king in October to postpone the elections because of the worsening security situation, Gyanendra dismissed Deuba and assumed executive powers himself. While postponing elections indefinitely, he also installed an interim administration headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a former prime minister and the leader of a small royalist party. Mainstream parties termed his decision undemocratic and organized antigovernment protests calling for a return to the democratic process. The subsequent June 2003 installation of Surya Bahadur Thapa, a member of a right-wing royalist party, as prime minister also lacked legitimacy, and in June 2004, Deuba, who enjoys somewhat more support than his predecessors, was reappointed as prime minister with a mandate to hold elections and reestablish peace. However, the NC and three other parties refused to join the government and parliament remained dissolved.
Peace with the Maoists proved elusive; after the collapse of a ceasefire between the rebels and government forces in August 2003, the rate of killings on both sides once again escalated dramatically. The Maoists continued their policy of bombing, assassinating government officials, particularly at the local level, and attacking key economic targets. Periodic strikes and blockades crippled the economy and caused further hardship for Nepali civilians and business interests. The cabinet formally invited the Maoists to negotiate in September 2004, but they appear unwilling to engage in sustained and serious negotiations with the palace unless the king agrees to their primary demand of convening a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.
The equation changed dramatically on February 1, 2005, when King Gyanendra dissolved the parliament, assumed executive powers, and imposed a state of emergency, which included detaining politicians, arresting thousands of party activists, outlawing demonstrations, and shutting down numerous media outlets and other means of communication, such as telephone and internet services. Although the state of emergency was lifted in April, restrictions on travel, assembly, and media remained in place, and many politicians and others continued to be held in detention or under house arrest. Bowing to international pressure, Gyanendra agreed in April to give the United Nations a mandate to establish offices in Kathmandu and regional centers in order to monitor the human rights situation, which has dramatically deteriorated and remains extremely poor.
Civil society groups continued to protest against the restrictions placed on their activities, while the parties themselves struggled to overcome their divisions and form a united front against the palace. The seven main parties banded together in support of a "road map" for a return to democracy that included as a first step the restoration of parliament. Antigovernment protests and agitation became a regular feature of life in Kathmandu during 2005. In response, official pressure on civil society and the media was stepped up; the government amended six media laws in October to increase controls on both content and ownership, and a 15-point code to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) was introduced in November.
The Maoist leadership was shaken by an internal dispute between leaders Bhattarai and Prachanda during the first half of 2005, though this did not excessively weaken the movement as a whole. There was some decline in the overall level of violence following the Maoists' declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in September, but instances of killing, torture, abduction, and extralegal arrest and detention continue to be perpetrated by both sides. The expansion of government-backed civilian militias that engage in vigilante justice added a new dimension to the already polarized situation in many villages. Despite the king's justification that a royal takeover of the government was needed to crush the Maoist insurgency and improve the security situation, there is little evidence that either occurred during the latter half of 2005.
Instead, the focus of the royal government has been on weakening political parties, civil society, and constitutional bodies and processes, which suggests that its long-term goal is a return to the partyless panchayat system and absolutist monarchy of the 1960s. Realizing that their attempts to engage the king were unlikely to bear fruit, the political parties entered into talks with the Maoists in October. Their efforts culminated in a 12-point agreement, reached between the two sides in November, that called for an end to absolute monarchy and the restoration of democracy; in addition, the parties agreed to boycott municipal elections scheduled for February 2006, while the Maoists expressed a willingness to participate in internationally monitored multiparty elections in the future. This new alliance changed the political equation and squarely allied both the parties and Maoists against the palace.
Citizens of Nepal cannot change their government demo-cratically. The 1990 constitution provides for a 205-seat lower house of parliament that is directly elected for a five-year term and a 60-seat upper house whose members are either elected by national or local government bodies or appointed by the king. Royal influence has always been entrenched by the king's authority to wield emergency powers and suspend many basic freedoms, as well as his role as commander in chief of the army. Parliamentary elections were last held in 1999, and polls that would have elected a new parliament in 2002 have been repeatedly postponed. King Gyanendra ruled from 2002 to 2005 through interim puppet prime ministers and cabinets that have had limited powers and little legitimacy; in February 2005, he dispensed with this façade when he dissolved parliament and personally assumed command over the government. As head of a new ten-member "Council of Ministers" that has absolute power, is not bound by the constitution, and can rule by decree, Gyanendra is supported by a coterie of hand-picked royalist administrators and politicians who were active in the politically repressive panchayat era.
A wide range of political parties has been allowed to operate since 1990, although the constitution bans parties that are formed along religious, caste, ethnic, tribal, or regional lines. Representation of ethnic minorities, lower castes, and women in state institutions remains inadequate. Since the royal takeover, leaders of the main parties have been subject to arrest, detention, and harassment, including politically motivated court cases, by authorities. Mass arrests of party activists have become the norm prior to and during planned protest actions.
As a result of the escalation in the insurgency, government institutions have all but fallen apart in much of rural Nepal. In the wake of the palace coup, decision making at all levels of government has come increasingly under the control of the royal family and its supporters, as well as the army, all of whom operate without oversight by any elected body. Local army officers act as de facto governors of districts, while higher-ranking officers and retired generals have been appointed to a number of influential posts.
Elected governments have made few reforms to Nepal's bloated, inefficient civil service, and ministries continue to operate with little openness or accountability. Corruption is perceived to be endemic in politics and government administration. Legislation passed in 2002 disqualifies those convicted on corruption charges from running in political elections for five years and places the burden of proof in corruption cases on the accused. However, compliance with anticorruption regulations remains weak, and the prosecution of high-level officials is rare, which contributes to a climate of impunity. Nepal was ranked 117 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
After the palace takeover, the king attempted to use the corruption issue as a tool to harass his political opponents. A powerful Royal Commission for Corruption Control was established in February 2005 with the mandate to prosecute corruption cases, and action was initiated against several politicians, including former prime minister Deuba. In July, Deuba was sentenced to two years in prison in a verdict that many observers noted was blatantly politicized.
Conditions for the media, which were already poor as a result of the escalation of the insurgency in 2001, deteriorated sharply after the palace coup. As part of the state of emergency, censorship was imposed (including the posting of army personnel in media premises and the prepublication vetting of news articles), private radio stations were banned outright from broadcasting any news, and other media were banned from reporting critically on government activities or on the insurgency. In addition, a number of prominent editors were arrested and detained during the crackdown. A restrictive press ordinance announced in October gave the government the power to revoke journalists' press accreditation and to impose high fines for publishing banned items. The ordinance also permanently barred private radio stations from broadcasting news, criminalized criticism of the royal family, and restricted media cross-ownership.
The ability of the Nepali press to operate freely remains seriously constrained by both government forces and the Maoists. Journalists who are suspected of pro-Maoist leanings or who produce material critical of the government are regularly arrested and detained by police and security forces, and a number have reportedly been tortured. Those reporters trying to cover events such as antigovernment demonstrations have also been subject to beatings or other harassment by the police. Media professionals are under constant pressure from the Maoists; reporters are regularly abducted and threatened as well as expelled from rebel-held areas. In November 2004, the Maoists imposed a reporting ban in five western districts and put into place provisions that required journalists to obtain permission from local Maoist leaders before reporting from each area.
The government owns both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage is supportive of official policies, and Nepal's main television station. Private radio stations, which flourished prior to the coup, have come under severe strain, as has the privately owned print press. Although access to the internet is generally unrestricted, after the February coup internet access, as well as other forms of communications including telephone lines, were temporarily shut down across Nepal, and access to satellite TV and foreign broadcasts was restricted or censored.
While self-censorship is a growing concern, journalists and local press freedom organizations and workers' groups have been at the forefront of resisting the assault on freedom of expression and other democratic rights. These groups have organized a number of demonstrations demanding the restitution of their rights, as well as pressing the Supreme Court to uphold media freedom in several legal challenges to official ordinances and threats against journalists and specific media outlets, such as Kantipur FM.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and although it describes Nepal as a Hindu kingdom, it does not establish Hinduism as the state religion, and religious tolerance is broadly practiced. However, proselytizing is prohibited, and members of some religious minorities occasionally complain of official harassment, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom. Christian groups have considerable difficulty registering as religious organizations and thus are unable to own land on which to build churches or cemeteries. The government does not restrict academic freedom. However, more than 100 teachers have been killed both by security forces and by Maoists, and Maoists regularly target private schools in rural areas. Schools are regularly forced to close in response to Maoist threats, and thousands of schoolchildren were abducted by Maoists during the year.
Freedom of assembly was banned as part of the February 2005 emergency declaration, and some restrictions remained in place after the emergency was lifted in May. Despite these formal regulations, the year saw a huge increase in antigovernment agitation, including attempts to hold protest marches and demonstrations. In the majority of cases, the demonstrations were broken up by police while hundreds of protestors were arrested in each instance. According to the UN monitoring office, police are using increasingly harsh tactics, which amount to excessive force, against peaceful protestors, including the indiscriminate use of tear gas to dispel protests.
The activities of many NGOs and their staffs were severely restricted following the February takeover, which compromised the ability of human rights defenders and others to perform their monitoring jobs effectively. Activists have been subjected to arrest and detention, as well as orders preventing them from leaving the Kathmandu Valley, either to travel elsewhere in Nepal or abroad. NGO staffs also continue to face harassment from both police and Maoist guerrillas, including threats, torture and detention, and occasional violence. The insurgency has forced a number of NGOs working in rural Nepal to curb their activities substantially, as the Maoists require NGOs to seek their permission to function in many districts and have expressed hostility towards international development organizations. Watchdog groups expressed concern in November about a proposed code of conduct containing vague provisions that they alleged could place undue restrictions on the operations of NGOs.
As part of the February emergency declaration, union rights were suspended and meetings were banned. Unions have attempted to hold demonstrations demanding a resumption of labor rights, but their leaders are under constant threat of arrest, according to the International Labor Organization. By law, workers in certain essential services cannot stage strikes, and 60 percent of a union's membership must vote in favor of a strike for it to be legal. In 2004, the government expanded the list of "essential industries" to cover entire sectors, such as the transport, tourism, telecommunications, and public utilities sectors; in 2005, it banned trade unions within the civil service. Although bonded labor was outlawed in 2000, it persists in rural areas, and the incidence of child labor has increased as a result of conditions created by the insurgency.
Until the February coup, the Supreme Court had been viewed as largely independent of the executive, but this independence was increasingly threatened during 2005, as court orders were routinely flouted by the government and the court itself repeatedly delayed issuing habeas corpus writs. Lower-level courts remain subject to political pressure and endemic corruption, and effective access to justice for many Nepalese remains limited. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects are often kept in pretrial detention longer than if they had been convicted of the crimes for which they stand accused. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes handcuffed or otherwise fettered.
In ordinary criminal cases, police at times commit extrajudicial killings and cause the disappearance of suspects in custody. They also occasionally torture and beat suspects to punish them or to extract confessions. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations and take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality. Set up in 2000, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has a mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations and provide redress for victims. However, following the February takeover, the NHRC's ability to conduct its work was further hampered by the government, which prevented it from undertaking several important fact-finding missions. In May, King Gyanendra modified the appointments process to the NHRC, stacking the nominating committee with his political allies. Later in the month, four new members (out of a total of five) were appointed, which brought the NHRC wholly under the king's control, in a move that was criticized by the United Nations and NGOs.
Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of increased human rights violations in the context of the insurgency, which now affects the entire country and has claimed nearly 13,000 lives since 1996. The army and poorly equipped police force are regularly implicated in extrajudicial killings, "disappearances," arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes, and the torture of suspected Maoists and alleged supporters. The NHRC has recorded several thousand extrajudicial executions since 2001 and several hundred disappearances in each of the last few years, a situation that confers on Nepal the dubious honor of having the highest number of recorded disappearances worldwide. A March 2005 Human Rights Watch report detailing the phenomenon noted, however, that these numbers may actually be underreported.
Several NGOs noted an apparent increase in the number of extrajudicial executions in 2005, as well as growing sophistication by the army in concealing the deaths. Armed civilian vigilante groups called Village Defence Forces (VDFs), who are backed by the army and who intimidate or kill suspected Maoists and their supporters, have also added to the climate of fear and instability that exists in many villages. In late February 2005, violence orchestrated by such groups in the Kapilvastu district resulted in the deaths of at least 31 people and the destruction of more than 700 homes, according to Amnesty International. Police, security forces, and VDFs operate in an atmosphere of almost complete impunity, and instances of perpetrators being punished for these abuses remain rare. However, in a historic decision announced in January, a Royal Nepalese Army officer was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in the 2003 Doramba massacre.
Domestic human rights groups accuse the government of using tough security laws, such as the Public Security Act and the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO), to deter civilians from supporting the Maoists. The government has detained dozens of civilians under TADO, including journalists, teachers, lawyers, and political activists. In 2004, the government amended TADO, extending the period during which suspects could be detained without trial to one year. TADO was further strengthened in 2005; the onus was placed on suspects to prove that they are innocent of accusations, and members of the public are now banned from attending trials or from having access to any case documents. According to a UN report made public in September 2005, 1,200 people were being held under TADO.
The Maoists have killed, tortured, or kidnapped civilians, including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties. The rebels-estimated at 5,000 well-trained guerrillas supported by some 15,000 fighters who control perhaps 75 percent of Nepal's territory-have also set up "people's courts" in some districts that hand down summary justice and "people's governments" that levy taxes on inhabitants' income and landholdings. Villagers are regularly coerced into providing food and lodging for traveling Maoist cadres and have been forced to attend political programs in which they are indoctrinated in Maoist ideology.
Adding to civilian hardship, the guerrillas fund themselves in part through extortion and looting, and they ordered a number of strikes and blockades throughout the year that paralyzed major urban centers. The Maoists have closed schools and imposed restrictions on health care facilities and also use forcibly recruited children as soldiers, human shields, and couriers. In 2005, the Maoists introduced a policy in many rural areas requiring each family to provide one able-bodied family member (usually a child) to the cause. Questions have also been raised about the ability of central leadership to control and discipline local cadres.
Members of the Hindu upper castes dominate government and business, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service, courts, and government offices. Despite constitutional provisions that ban caste-based discrimination, dalits (untouchables) continue to be subjected to particularly severe exploitation, violence, and social exclusion. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans escape into exile via Nepal each year, with most ending up in India. In a bid to improve relations with China, the government closed all offices related to the Tibetan refugees in January 2005, according to Agence France-Presse. Nepal also provides asylum to more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees. International organizations estimate that several hundred thousand Nepalese have been internally displaced as a result of the Maoist insurgency.
Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and civil service. Although a 2002 law legalized abortion and broadened women's property rights, many other laws relating to property, divorce, marriage, and citizenship discriminate against women. Domestic violence and rape continue to be serious problems. The government has taken few steps to curb violence against women or to assist victims, and authorities generally do not prosecute domestic violence cases. Amnesty International and others have documented a number of cases of custodial rape of women and girls by both security forces and members of VDFs. Thousands of women and girls are trafficked annually, many to Indian brothels; while the majority are lured by false promises of work or sold by a family member, some are abducted by organized gangs. Because the majority of prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned and find it difficult to rebuild their lives. The factors that lead to trafficking have worsened as a result of the insurgency, as has children's access to education and other basic services.