Nepal | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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In keeping with a November 2006 peace agreement that ended their guerrilla insurgency, Nepal’s Maoists joined an interim legislature in January 2007 and completed weapons decommissioning shortly thereafter. An interim constitution was promulgated on January 15. However, unrest among the Madhesi minority and tense relations between the Maoists and mainstream political parties led to the postponement of elections for a Constituent Assembly to April 2008. While significant improvements in law and order were made following the 2006 ceasefire, Maoist violence and extortion continued, and attacks on the press by both Maoist and Madhesi groups were commonplace in 2007.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified the Himalayan state of Nepal 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 lift the ban on political parties. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in a prime minister and cabinet responsible to Parliament but retained the monarch as head of state.

In Nepal’s first multiparty elections in 32 years, Girija Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government in 1991. Torn 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. Separately, the more militant Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched a guerrilla insurgency in 1996 that eventually engulfed much of the countryside. Hopes for a more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in 1999 elections.

In June 2001, King Birendra’s brother Gyanendra ascended the throne after a bizarre palace incident in which the crown prince apparently shot and killed Birendra and nine other members of the royal family before killing himself. In November, 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. Gyanendra assumed executive powers, postponed elections indefinitely, and installed a right-wing, royalist administration. In June 2004, former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who enjoyed somewhat more support than his predecessors, was reappointed 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. Meanwhile, fighting between the Maoists and security forces mounted, and periodic strikes and blockades crippled the economy.

In February 2005, Gyanendra once again dismissed the government, assumed executive powers, and imposed a state of emergency. His officials detained politicians, arrested thousands of party activists, outlawed demonstrations, and shut down numerous media outlets and other means of communication, such as telephone and internet services. Realizing that their attempts to engage the king were unlikely to bear fruit, the seven-party alliance (SPA) of mainstream political factions entered into talks with the Maoists in October 2005, yielding a 12-point agreement in November that called for an end to absolute monarchy and the restoration of democracy.

In March 2006, the SPA and Maoists began planning a series of strikes and rallies scheduled for April. Thousands took part in demonstrations across the country on a daily basis, with the general public—led by professionals, civil society and human rights activists, and the civil service—forming the core of most marches. The crowds surged in size after the king on April 21 offered to appoint a prime minister recommended by the SPA. The SPA and Maoists dismissed the offer as insufficient, demanding the restoration of Parliament and the election of a Constituent Assembly (CA) to write a new constitution. Gyanendra relented on April 24, agreeing to reinstate Parliament and follow the provisions of the November 2005 SPA-Maoist pact. Parliament quickly removed most of the king’s powers, and the SPA announced plans for CA elections.

After months of Maoist-SPA tension over Maoist disarmament and the fate of the monarchy, the groups concluded a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in November 2006, stipulating that the Maoists place their weapons under UN monitoring and confine their fighters to camps across the country. The national army would lock up a similar number of weapons. The Maoists further agreed to disband their parallel government and join a new interim government alongside current members of Parliament. Maoists joined the new Parliament on January 12, 2007, and weapons decommissioning was finished later in the month. An interim constitution was promulgated on January 15.

Optimism following the peace agreement proved short lived, however, as violence broke out in mid-January in the Terrai plains region along the border with India. Following the promulgation of the interim constitution, the region’s ethnic Madhesi population organized weeks of strikes and demonstrations, objecting to the lack of emphasis on federalism and minority rights in the charter. A violent police crackdown led to 30 deaths, and although the movement slowed in early February, tension continued throughout the year.

The combination of violence in the south and a lack of finalized election laws led to the postponement in May of CA elections, originally scheduled for June, to November. Meanwhile, the Maoists became concerned about their chances at the polls. Some 2007 opinion surveys placed them behind both the NC and the CPN-UML. In August, the Maoists issued 22 preconditions for their participation in the CA elections, including the immediate declaration of a republic and a shift to a fully proportional electoral system. The Maoists withdrew their ministers from the cabinet in September, saying their demands had been ignored. Following several rounds of talks to reconcile the groups, the government agreed to abolish the monarchy following CA elections, which had again been postponed to April 2008. The absent Maoist ministers returned to the government in late December following a parliamentary vote confirming the decision.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Nepal is not an electoral democracy. The government is operating under an interim constitution promulgated on January 15, 2007. The interim legislature is a unicameral, 330-seat body comprised of members of the House of Representatives—the lower house of the former bicameral Parliament—elected in 1999 and unelected Maoists who joined the government in January 2007. The upper house provided for under the 1990 constitution is defunct. The legislature elected former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala as the interim premier on April 1, 2007. Executive power is vested in the council of ministers, led by Koirala. The monarchy was pushed into the background after the April 2006 protests; King Gyanendra has no political power.

The interim constitution calls for a CA with 425 members, half elected through a first-past-the-post system and half through proportional representation. The CA will be tasked with writing a new constitution and paving the way for parliamentary elections. CA elections are currently scheduled for April 2008.

A wide range of political parties are currently in Parliament, although parties that opposed the April 2006 uprising are barred. Unlike the 1990 constitution, the interim constitution has no limitation on parties formed along ethnic lines. The Maoists registered as a political party in July 2007. While minorities and women are both poorly represented, the Maoists included 28 women and 11 Dalits (“untouchable” caste members) in their contingent of 73 lawmakers in the interim legislature. Representation in state institutions of ethnic minorities, lower castes, and women remains inadequate, although in August 2007, Parliament passed a civil service bill reserving 45 percent of posts for women, minorities, and Dalits.

Corruption is perceived to be endemic in politics and government, and enforcement of anticorruption regulations remains weak. Graft is particularly prevalent in the judiciary, with frequent payoffs to judges for rulings. Central bank governor Bijaya Nath Bhattarai was suspended in June 2007 on corruption charges, but his trial had not produced a verdict by year’s end. Nepal was ranked 131 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The legal environment for the press has improved significantly since the April 2006 uprising. Several restrictive media controls were repealed shortly after Parliament returned to power. The interim constitution promulgated in January 2007 provides for press freedom and specifically prohibits censorship, although these rights can be suspended during an emergency. Authorities are forbidden to close or cancel registrations for media outlets due to content. A freedom of information bill passed in July 2007 guarantees all citizens information from any sector, and entitles individuals to compensation if requests are not met within 15 days. In an effort to promote professionalism, the government passed legislation in September 2007 stipulating that media outlets can keep only 15 percent of their journalists on temporary contracts, and ensuring health benefits and social security for contract workers. The government maintains control of both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage is supportive of official policies, and Nepal’s main television station.

Violence and intimidation toward journalists increased significantly in 2007. At least 72 journalists were attacked or threatened in the first half of the year. While mainstream Maoist intimidation has decreased, the Young Communist League (YCL), an organization linked to the Maoists, attacked and intimidated journalists throughout the year. Among other incidents, YCL members in August attempted to abduct a journalist for Dristi Weekly and threatened him with death. Maoist-affiliated unions have also threatened newspapers and forcibly shut down production of the Himalayan Times and Annapurna Post in August. Violence related to the Madhesi movement has also affected journalists. Nine newspapers in western Nepal were forced to stop publishing in early January due to threats from Madhesi groups. In late January, demonstrators set fire to a radio station and attacked journalists in Birgunj. Cadres of the Madhesi Janatantrik Forum (MJF) political party in February attacked five journalists covering a protest in eastern Nepal. In November, Maoist leaders acknowledged their involvement in the murder of Birendra Sah, a reporter for Nepal FM radio. Although cases involving government forces were less common, police and soldiers have mistreated journalists in some instances.

The interim constitution identifies Nepal as a secular state, signaling a break with the Hindu monarchy. Although religious tolerance is broadly practiced, proselytizing is prohibited, and members of some religious minorities occasionally complain of official harassment, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom. Christian groups have considerable difficulty registering as religious organizations and thus are unable to own land. Tibetan groups have faced restrictions in organizing public events. There were occasional reports of Maoist threats and violence toward Hindu temples in 2007.

The government does not restrict academic freedom. More than 100 teachers were killed by security forces and Maoists during the civil conflict, and Maoists regularly targeted private schools in rural areas, often abducting and forcibly conscripting school children. Since April 2006, the number of attacks on schools has dropped.

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed under the interim constitution. Security forces had reportedly fired into unarmed crowds during the April 2006 demonstrations, but shoot-to-kill curfews and other restrictions on assembly were lifted following Parliament’s return to power. Generally peaceful protests and strikes were commonplace throughout Nepal in 2007, but Madhesi protesters in Terrai clashed with the police in January and February, and at least 30 protesters were killed. The police were authorized to shoot at violent protesters amid a curfew in the area, and officers arrested Madhesi leaders. In the aftermath of the violence, Madhesis called for the resignation of the home minister and the formation of a commission of inquiry, but the government had not met either demand by year’s end.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) played an active role in the April 2006 protests, and conditions for the groups improved somewhat following the transfer of power. In May 2006, the government repealed a November 2005 code of conduct that had barred NGOs from work that would disturb social harmony. However, commentators criticized the government for not including NGO recommendations when drafting the interim constitution. Several NGOs reported threats and extortion by the YCL in western Nepal in 2007. At least one group was ordered under threat to appear before a local people’s court. Developmental NGOs also faced threats and general unrest in the Terrai region during the year.

The labor act provides for the freedom to collectively bargain, and unions generally operate without state interference. A draconian labor ordinance put in place by Gyanendra’s government was repealed in 2006, and restrictions on civil service members forming unions were lifted. By law, workers in a broad range of “essential” industries cannot stage strikes, and 60 percent of a union’s membership must vote in favor of a strike for it to be legal. Although bonded labor was outlawed in 2000, it persists in rural areas, and the incidence of child labor has increased due to conditions created by the insurgency. A June 2006 report indicated there were more than a million child workers in Nepal.

The Supreme Court is a generally conservative institution, and is largely independent of the new government. The court filed several petitions in 2006 appealing Parliament’s decision to revoke the monarchy’s powers. Lower courts remain subject to political pressure and endemic corruption, and many Nepalese have only limited access to justice. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects are often kept in pretrial detention for periods longer than their prospective prison sentences. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes remaining 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. In June 2007, eight men were arrested and tortured in Bnake district. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations or take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality.

Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of an array of human rights violations in the context of the insurgency, which claimed nearly 13,000 lives between 1996 and 2006. Prior to April 2006, the army and the poorly equipped police force were regularly implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, rapes, and the torture of suspected Maoists. In turn, Maoists killed, tortured, or kidnapped civilians, including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties. The rebels also set up “people’s courts” that handed down summary justice and “people’s governments” that levied taxes on local inhabitants. While the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission was called for in the November 2006 CPA, a bill to create the commission had yet to be enacted at the end of 2007.

The Maoists impounded their weapons under UN supervision in January 2007, and people’s governments and courts were officially abandoned in February. Some 31,000 Maoist fighters are currently living in 28 camps throughout the country. However, Maoists have faced criticism for continued human rights abuses. The YCL, established by the Maoists following the CPA, has frequently kidnapped and beaten alleged criminals before handing them over to police. The group was responsible for over 23 kidnappings in June 2007 alone. YCL members have also attacked journalists and demanded protection payments from businesses across the country. In March, all commercial activities in Kathmandu were halted for several days as business owners protested threats, violence, and extortion by Maoist groups. Continued abuses have meant that few of the estimated 200,000 people displaced by the conflict have returned to their homes. In May, the United Nations reported that many of the displaced who did return were forced to stand trial in still-functioning Maoist courts.

Members of the Hindu upper castes dominate government and business, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service and courts. Despite constitutional provisions that ban caste-based discrimination, Dalits continue to be subjected to particularly severe exploitation, violence, and social exclusion. Nepal also provides asylum to more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees.

Madhesis, plains-dwelling people with close connections to groups across the border in India, are often described in contrast to Pahades, or hill-dwelling people. Madhesis are underrepresented in politics, receive comparatively little economic support from the government, and until an amendment to the citizenship law in 2006 had difficulty acquiring formal citizenship due to Nepali language requirements. In December 2006, a strike called by the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, a Madhesi political party, turned violent and led to several injuries as Madhesis clashed with Pahades and local officials. Tensions flared again in January and February 2007, as Madhesis objected to the lack of emphasis on federalism and minority rights in the interim constitution. An uneasy peace was reached after the government promised increased inclusion of minority groups in political life. Madhesis have also clashed with Maoists; in March 2007 a dispute over a contested protest venue led to violence in which 27 Maoists were killed.

Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and the civil service. However, the interim constitution reserves a third of all seats in the forthcoming CA for women. 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 security forces and state-sponsored village militias. Thousands of women and girls are trafficked annually, many to Indian brothels. Because most prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned. In December 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that women under 35 would no longer need their parents’ or husbands’ permission to apply for a passport. Parliament in May 2006 unanimously backed a resolution under which children born to Nepalese women would be given full citizenship. While homosexuality is not outlawed, an “unnatural sex act” carrying a one-year jail sentence is used against gay men and transgender people. In December, the Supreme Court ordered the government to abolish all laws that discriminate against homosexuals.