Nepal under pressure to release Madheshi activist

The arrest of activist CK Raut has drawn fierce criticism, both inside Nepal as well as outside, with Amnesty International calling for his unconditional release.

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NEW DELHI // Nepal’s government is coming under increasing pressure to release C K Raut, an activist who has been imprisoned after being accused of fomenting a secessionist campaign.

Mr Raut, who was arrested in mid-September, has been charged with sedition for demanding that the region of Madhesh, in the southern plains of Nepal, be declared an independent state.

His arrest has drawn fierce criticism, within Nepal as well as outside. Prachanda, the leading opposition politician, said after Mr Raut’s arrest that every political opinion had a right to be heard. “Those demanding a reinstatement of the monarchy are free to speak up, and those advocating the right to self-determination also should not be arrested,” he said.

On Friday, Amnesty International released a statement urging Nepal to “unconditionally” release Mr Raut. “The arbitrary arrest and detention of CK Raut on the basis of his peaceful expression of his political views is a breach of his right to freedom of speech,” the statement said.

Last week, Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that the arrest “threatens the chances of a robust debate on federalism, and undermines the promise of inclusion. Mr Raut’s arrest shows that minority voices can and will be easily sidelined.”

A successful computer scientist who studied in Japan and the United Kingdom, Mr Raut returned to Nepal in 2011, giving up a career in the United States to begin a non-violent campaign for the rights of Madheshis.

"He's a Madheshi himself, and he has been saying that Madhesh can develop only if it becomes independent," Prashant Jha, a New Delhi-based Nepali writer and author of Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, told The National on Wednesday. "His politics is based on the stance that Madheshis aren't getting their due rights in Nepal."

Mr Raut’s arrest comes in the midst of Nepal’s drafting process for its new constitution, which is scheduled to be promulgated by January 2015. As discussions about a federal structure have heated up, Mr Raut has been calling for the right to secession to be embedded within the new constitution.

“The government has in general been becoming insecure and jittery about the impact he’s been having,” Mr Jha said. “He’s been campaigning and travelling a lot. And the home minister at the moment is an ultra-nationalist as well, so there was a push by him that led to the arrest.”

Mr Jha met Mr Raut in prison, in Kathmandu, shortly after his arrest. Not long afterwards, Mr Raut went on an 11-day hunger strike that ended only when the government hinted that it would drop the “public offence” charge under which he had first been arrested.

Instead, however, Mr Raut found himself charged afresh with sedition.

Although a special court last week ordered that Mr Raut could be released on a bail of 50,000 Nepali rupees (Dh 1,855), he refused to post the bail.

The Madhesh independence movement dates back to the 1950s. Through the decades, Madheshi secessionists have argued that they face racism and discrimination, that their region is routinely overlooked in Kathmandu’s development plans, and that their fundamental rights are often infringed.

Between 2006 and 2008, riots broke out on several occasions, leaving 54 Madheshis dead from police gunfire and many more injured or arrested.

Some Madheshi groups have also taken recourse to militancy to press for their objectives. But Mr Raut was “always utterly non-violent,” Mr Jha said.

A few weeks before his arrest, Mr Raut had been invited by Nepal’s constituent assembly – which is drafting the constitution – to share his views on the structure of the constitution. It was here that he formally asked for the right to secession to be included.

His arrest has triggered spurts of protest from other Madheshi independence parties, and the fresh pressure from international human rights groups could make the Nepali government uncomfortable, Mr Jha said.

“Even within the government, some people are saying that this arrest shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “But I don’t think it will as yet cause mass protests on the ground. Instead, Mr Raut’s case will get merged with a lot of other, bigger issues of federalism as this debate over the constitution continues.”