Nepal crackdown continues as court frees detainees

AP , KATMANDU

Thu, Feb 16, 2006 - Page 5

Nepal's embattled royal government continued its crackdown on opponents of King Gyanendra's direct rule yesterday, despite being forced by court cases to release an imprisoned former prime minister and dozens of other political detainees.

Two senior leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal said yesterday they had eluded arrest at their party's office by escaping on motorcycles through back alleys.

Police surrounded the office late on Tuesday in an attempt to arrest Bam Dev Gautam and Jhal Nath Khanal, who have been on the run since the government began a crackdown on the main political parties, which have been demanding that the king restore democracy.

"We managed to escape another attempt by the government to arrest us," Gautam told reporters yesterday.

The government was forced to release former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba after the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a powerful anti-corruption commission created by the king was unconstitutional. Critics had charged that the Royal Commission for Corruption Control, which had jailed Deuba on graft charges, was a tool used by the king to crack down on his adversaries.

The government also freed 43 human rights activists, student leaders and political activists on Tuesday following a series of lawsuits filed by rights groups demanding the government produce charges against them. Instead, the government decided to let them go, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The cases represent a new challenge to Nepal's embattled monarch -- this time from the country's courts.

The moves are "a message to the king that he must respect the rule of law," said Binod Nepal, one of the lawyers who filed suits to get the prisoners released.

King Gyanendra seized control of the government last February, a move he said was needed to quell a bloody Maoist rebellion and bring order to the country's chaotic politics.

The royal government has jailed hundreds of politicians and rights activists at various times since then, and held them anywhere from a few days to many months.

Hours after walking out of a Katmandu jail at midnight on Tuesday, former Prime Minister Deuba called for a return to democracy in the Himalayan kingdom, telling supporters gathered at his home, "I will dedicate myself to this purpose."

Despite Deuba's pledge to push for democracy, the opposition remains nearly as unpopular as the king, with 14 years of democratic rule marred by frequent squabbling and corruption.