In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.
John* is a human rights defender working in Nepal:
“It has been almost a decade since I was (first) involved in human rights advocacy. Initially, it was a learning phase as a member of an international movement, which later turned into social action.
Since then I have been supporting public advocacy for the full realisation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all in Nepal, especially in the current context as we welcome a new constitution and political environment.
Aside from this I have been raising areas of concern regarding conflicts of interest in non-governmental sectors. A fully functioning and empowered civil society is vital for Nepal to achieve its transitional aims, and I view this as an important part of my work, especially when trying to encourage and defend the right for all to practice their religion or belief, regardless of racial class or social background.
Three years on from the date that Nepal adopted its new constitution, there are concerns about its ‘anti-conversion’ clause, which seemed designed to specifically protect Hinduism at the expense of other religions.
The clause, in Article 26 (3) of the constitution, states:
“No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion and such act shall be punishable by law.”
These provisions were strengthened in the Penal Code 2017 which came into force in August 2018. Section 158 states that “No person shall convert any one from one religion to another or make attempt to or abet such conversion” and carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to fifty thousand rupees.
The criminalisation of conversion is a direct infringement on freedom of religion or belief as it robs individuals of the right to change their religion. These provisions also threaten the right to freedom of expression as they could be used to prohibit a range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief such as charitable activities or speaking about one’s faith.
Kandhamal district is among the poorest and most marginalised in Odhisa (formerly Orissa) state, India. On 25 August 2008, it was the epi-centre of communal attacks against the Christian community in India. Local monitoring groups have estimated that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced and over 300 churches destroyed by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouses the Hindutva ideology.
Ten years on, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression by groups belonging to the RSS continue. The lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups. As with recent attacks against religious minorities in India, the carnage that unfolded in Kandhamal was not a one-off isolated incident devoid of a historical narrative.
American Pastor Andrew Brunson and his wife have been living in Turkey for 23 years running a church in Izmir with the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities.
However, on the 7 October 2016, they were summoned by the local police and accused for being a “threat to the national security”, with no further details supplied. While his wife was eventually released, Pastor Brunson was held in an immigration detention facility, where he was denied family visits and access to a bible. After two months in solitary confinement he was transferred to a high security prison in Izmir, before being brought before a court on 9 December, where he was informed he would be imprisoned due to his alleged links to the Gulen movement, the organisation deemed responsible for the attempted military coup in July 2016. The court did not reveal the source of this accusation. An appeal against the pastor’s imprisonment was turned down on 29 December, and a fresh appeal is expected to be launched at a higher court.
Deterioration in Human Rights and Rise in Ultra-nationalism
Pastor Brunson’s case is illustrative of the significant deterioration in human rights situation that occurred in the aftermath of the foiled military coup. Thousands of journalists, academics, activists, writers, teachers, judges and thinkers have been arrested since July 2016, accused of being “traitors and collaborators against national interests”, while others have been forced to adopt lower profiles and live in anticipation of being arrested.
Notes to Editors: The eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal were acquitted of all charges on 6 December 2016.
“For the last two years we have been unsure about how long the doors will be open for us to practise our faith freely. We were not expecting this level of harassment”. Tanka Subedi, Christian leader and human rights defender, Kathmandu, Nepal
On 21 September, eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal will attend their next (and possibly final) court hearing – one day after Nepal marks the first anniversary of the promulgation of its long awaited constitution. They all face charges of attempting to convert children to Christianity through the distribution of a comic book which explains the story of Jesus.
The arrests took place in June 2016, following two trauma counselling sessions organised by Teach Nepal, a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The sessions sought to address the psychological needs of children affected by the earthquakes that hit Nepal in April 2015 and were held on 8 and 9 June in two schools in Charikot: Modern Nepal School and Mount Valley Academy. When they finished, the organisers distributed a small gift pack to the children, which included a handkerchief and a 23-page comic book entitled The Great Story.