King of Nepal crushes white-collar street protests

Dan McDougall in Kathmandu

Guardian Online, April 16, 2006


Stumbling blindly through filthy clouds of teargas, Niraj Acharya wiped blood from his forehead as he tripped and fell on the stony ground. Around him hundreds of other lawyers, their black cloaks flapping in the panic, scrambled to safety on their hands and knees, flinching at each rattle of M16 gunfire.

It had begun at the entrance to Kathmandu's Supreme Court with a peaceful anti-monarchy protest led by the Nepal Bar Association calling for the restoration of democracy in the Himalayan kingdom. It ended with a volley of baton rounds and a charge by the Royal Nepalese Police. This time, though, it was different: there were no Maoist flags or crude student banners in sight - the target of the authorities were all professionals, advocates, doctors and academics.

'The king is targeting civil society,' Niraj screamed. 'We are lawyers and advocates. We stand for the law, but we are powerless against this violence.'

Then yesterday it was the turn of journalists, protesting against a media clampdown in the Nepalese capital, to feel the police batons as a general strike shut down much of the nation. Kathmandu remained under a strict military curfew last night as Nepal's absolute monarch, King Gyanendra, continued aggressively to impose a ban on all public meetings and street protests by pro-democracy campaigners calling for him to end his autocratic rule.

Following a week of the worst anti-establishment protests ever seen here, the United Nations' top human rights official, Louise Arbour, yesterday expressed shock at the Nepalese security forces' excessive use of force against protesters, claiming that the UN Secretary-General feared the worst for the democracy campaigners. Sentiment is intensively hardening against the king, who seized power from his government 14 months ago and whose unpopularity has been clear in eight days of demonstrations, most of which have ended in violent street battles.

When the king took absolute control of Nepal he claimed that he needed to stamp out political corruption and end a Maoist insurgency that has left nearly 13,000 people dead in the past decade. Many of the kingdom's 27 million people at first welcomed the seizure of power. But the insurgency has intensified and the economy has deteriorated.

At least four protesters have been shot dead by the police. The Observer has learnt that the death toll from the demonstrations is likely to be much higher, with eye-witness accounts from protesters accusing the police of removing critically wounded demonstrators from the street and taking them to army camps for treatment or 'disposal' instead of hospitals or mortuaries. According to the Nepalese Human Rights Alliance, at least 3,000 protesters have been loaded into police trucks in Kathmandu since last weekend and taken to army camps and temporary detention centres where they are held without charge. Some of those released had been tortured, beaten or put before firing squads and threatened. Many people are missing.

A spokesman for Amnesty International said last night that the situation in the kingdom was grave: 'These arrests, combined with the heightened restrictions on civil and political rights over the past week, highlight the government's continuing disregard for human rights.'

In the wake of the police attack on the members of the Nepal Bar Association, The Observer visited Kathmandu's Model Hospital, where at least 80 lawyers, all injured in the clashes, were taken for treatment. One, Chandra Pokhrel, who was shot in the head with a rubber bullet, said he was targeted because he tried to stop police beating a man. 'I asked three policemen to stop hitting an elderly man, a lawyer I knew from my old chambers, but they wouldn't stop, they were emotionless. I'm not sure where the old man is. As I walked away I was shot at from across the street. I hit the ground and my face was covered in blood, then I passed out.'

On Friday the leader of Nepal's biggest opposition party rejected an offer by King Gyanendra to hold national elections and unity talks to defuse the campaign against his rule, setting the stage for further pro-democracy rallies. Girija Prasad Koirala, a four-time Prime Minister and president of the Nepali Congress, said time was running out for the king and urged the international community to continue putting pressure on the monarch.

Nepal's ordinary citizens are under threat from three sides. They live in a country where they can be lynched by vigilantes, abducted by Maoists, 'disappeared' by government security forces and tortured or killed by any of the three. Many - a million so far - have fled to India rather than live in a conflict zone.

In the darkness outside Kalanki military base on the outskirts of Kathmandu, the wives of missing men are gathered in the humid gloom. 'I want my husband back,' cries Gynu. Like the other wailing women clinging to the fence of the compound, her voice is hoarse from her pleas, her slender hands swollen from banging on the gates. 'What has he done? Tell me, what he has done?'

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