Scapegoating a champion of democracy

By Buddha Mani Dhakal

The first time I met Tek Nath Rizal in Siliguri in 2000, it was inconceivable that he could one day be entangled in a scandal involving Nepalis trying to get fake refugee documents to be resettled in the United States.

Rizal was then just exiled after serving a decade long jail term, reduced from life sentence, but had not joined the other exiled leaders then. This was a man who advocated for the cause of genuine refugees, not creating fake ones.

During my college days in Kathmandu I had read many accounts of Rizal’s commitment to democracy, identity and human rights against the oppressive Bhutan government. While in self-imposed exile in Nepal, the Panchayat regime deported him back to Bhutan in 1989 after which he was jailed and tortured for ten long years.

I got to know Rizal personally while working with him on the initial draft of his book, निर्वासन. We spent countless evenings together, transcribing his dictations into text, and trying to give it structure and coherence.

It was evident that Rizal suffered from post-traumatic stress from physical and mental torture during his incarceration, much of which was spent in solitary confinement. He would interrupt his recollections to curse individuals who had betrayed him, and at other times he would turn despondent over the loss of trusted companions.

Recalling the “dual-role” officials played in Thimphu would incite furious outbursts from him. Rizal was known for straightforwardness in conversation, he was blunt and to the point. What you saw was what he was: it seemed like he was incapable of subterfuge.

Initially in Kathmandu, his primary supporter and benefactor was Hiranyalal Shrestha and Krishna Pahadi who actively backed the cause of refugees from Bhutan. Shrestha was later sent as Nepal’s ambassador to Moscow. I helped Rizal relocate to his office from Sanepa to the Pulchok area.

Along the way, Rizal has been deceived numerous times by close friends and trusted government officials, both in Bhutan and Nepal. He felt especially betrayed by Om Pradhan, the former Bhutan Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York and a former Minister for Trade and Industries.

The latest betrayal is happening in Kathmandu, where at age 76 he has been jailed on charges of colluding with senior Nepali officials in a scam to get more than 800 Nepali citizens to pay for getting fake refugee papers, so they can be resettled in the United States.

Indrajit Rai, who wrote the foreword to Rizal’s book Torture: Killing Me Softly, possibly turned out to be the person to drag him into this scandal. Rizal had placed immense faith in Nepal’s bureaucrats and politicians to resolve the refugee problem.

In his early days in Kathmandu some 18 years ago, Rizal was treated like a VIP. He received special treatment in hospitals, the Human Rights Commission, media outlets, the Foreign Ministry, and some foreign embassies. Refugee advocacy groups used his contacts to gain access to offices that were otherwise off-limits.

Newspapers and radio stations often interviewed him about the refugee question. One national daily even found his visit to a barbershop in Lalitpur to be newsworthy enough to warrant coverage.

Tek Nath Rizal’s dedication to fighting corruption stemmed from his revolutionary background as a human rights activist in Bhutan. He fearlessly reported corrupt practices by district and sub-divisional heads in Bhutan to King Jigme IV when he served as a member of the royal audit team.

His commitment to justice led him to play an active role in Parliament, particularly in the issuance of citizenship ID cards to people from southern and eastern Bhutan. From these early days to his position in the Royal Advisory Council, Rizal amplified the concerns of ordinary people of whatever ethnicity in Bhutan.

Along the way, he must have made enemies. And it was this dedication and integrity that eventually landed him in the notorious prisons of Bhutan, after being extradited from Nepal in 1989.

I personally have witnessed first-hand the toll that the years of solitary confinement had taken on him. He would wake up in the middle of the night, pace the floor speaking aloud to himself. He would smoke a pack of cigarettes to calm his nerves, and I can only imagine the kind of mental distress he was going through.

Once again, Rizal finds himself trapped within the walls of a prison cell. He has been betrayed again, this time as a scapegoat. Rizal did not have the means to create fake documents containing Nepal government seals on official letterheads.

While listening to some audio recordings, it becomes clear that he may have unwittingly assisted the criminals under the misguided belief that it would benefit genuine refugees. I am mystified why Rizal was oblivious to the falsification of documents and consented even to be associated with such criminals.

Jogen Gazmer was deported to Bhutan with Rizal and Sushil Pokhrel in 1989 whom Amnesty International declared Prisoners of Conscience in Wangdi Phodrang prison. Gazmer was released in 1992, while Rizal continued to be locked up for another eight years. Gazmer now lives in Australia and is convinced that Rizal was framed.

Rizal’s son, Vikram, lives in Canada and is convinced his father was a whistleblower. He is targeted by the very Nepali politicians whom he had repeatedly warned about the fake refugee scam.

In his deposition after arrest in Kathmandu, Rizal explicitly mentioned that the Nepal government refugee allowance was withdrawn when he began reporting individuals impersonating officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs to make fake documents.

Rizal went to the police a year ago to say that there were threats against him in Birtamod from those who had paid money to be refugee impostors. We do not know if the police acted on this complaint.

Questions also remain about the fake Bhutan Human Rights Organisation and why Nepal’s Ministry of Home Affairs felt it necessary to obtain Rizal’s signature on refugee resettlement documents, when he had never been asked to sign any such papers during previous phases of the program. This appears to be a deliberate move to make him culpable through unnecessary involvement.

As the case unfolds, Tek Nath Rizal’s character and lifelong dedication to justice and human rights must also be considered. The truth must prevail, and Rizal deserves a fair chance to prove his innocence without undue prejudice.

Source: Nepali Times

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