Home ministry could ban sale of knives to youth

But it will depend on a strong link being found between possession and use in violent crime

Law and Order: The home ministry is leaning towards banning sale of knives for youth under 18, as proposed by the police.

But on imposing a time curfew that would restrict youth from being on the streets after a certain hour, the ministry says the law already addresses the issue.

Both measures were proposed by the police, given rising incidents of youth crime involving weapons.

However, the home minister, Damcho Dorji, said that a ban on sale of knives would also depend on strong evidence linking them to violence. “There’s no reason why the state shouldn’t impose a ban on the sale of knives to children below the age of 18 if there’s overwhelming evidence that minors are putting themselves and the general public in harm’s way by arming themselves with dangerous weapons,” he said.

There were 75 battery cases, of which 18 were stabbings, involving youth last year.

The minister added that, under the penal code, criminal nuisance, breach of public order and tranquillity, disorderly conduct, prowling, obstruction of thoroughfare, illegal possession of a firearm or other lethal weapons, and display of a weapon, are crimes that warrant frisking, arrest and detention, if the police have reasonable suspicion that a crime may be perpetrated.

Lyonpo Damcho also pointed out parents need to be more responsible, so that the police do not have to resort to such “unpleasant measures”.

However, opposition leader, (Dr) Pema Gyamtsho questioned how successful such a measure may be. “While I agree that youth shouldn’t be carrying knives or any weapon for that matter, I’m not so sure how the ban on sale of knives will help,” he said. “I would think that they’d have access to knives from their homes or other places, and don’t necessarily have to buy them from shops.”

On the proposed time curfew, lyonpo Damcho did not say whether such a measure may be introduced, but he did point out that loitering at odd hours is already restricted by law.  He cited section 166 of the civil and criminal procedure code (CCPC) that deals with the police’s stop and frisk powers.  The section allows police upon reasonable suspicion to stop and frisk a person moving about at odd hours, but does not specify when odd hours begin, and does not mention anything about a time restriction on youth.

“The definition of odd hours isn’t defined therein, and therefore will have to be interpreted reasonably by law enforcement agencies, depending upon each circumstance,” the home minister said.

However, in a press conference held last month, it was pointed out by the police chief that the Royal Bhutan Police had no power to impose a time restriction, and required the home ministry’s approval.

What CCPC does give police is the power to stop and frisk a person upon “reasonable suspicion of involvement in a criminal offence”, and to arrest and detain if necessary.

The police are already doing this, but with a few additions.  They are stopping and frisking groups of two or more youth found on the streets after 10pm.  A first offence results in a warning and handover to parents.  A second leads to arrest and being charged to court.

Lyonpo Damcho said this legal tool to ensure public safety has become necessary in Thimphu, given the rising number of stabbings, gang fights and extortions. “This happens mostly during school vacations, when school children get adventurous, spurred by peer pressure and psychological tendency to prove their manhood, which are all part of growing up,” he said.

“Frisking is permissible and necessary as long as there’s a reasonable suspicion that a person is in possession of dangerous weapons, or has intentions to engage in criminal activities,” lyonpo added.

The move has not been without criticism.  There have been arguments made that being stopped and frisked just because a person is in a group of two or more after 10pm is an invasion of privacy, and that such sacrifices now will open the door to more later in the name of security.

Lyonpo Damcho said it was wrong to generalise frisking as an infringement of privacy rights.  He said it would become an infringement only when it is conducted in violation of laws that govern it.

He also dismissed concerns that other rights could be sacrificed in the name of security later on.

“On the other hand, public safety and the safety of the person being frisked is equally important,” he said. “So, the police has to walk a fine corridor between the rights of the person being frisked and legal provisions, which permit such frisking under strict terms and conditions, therefore, the concern that frisking may open doors to sacrifice of other such rights is not tenable, as each right is protected by the law, depending upon its nature and importance.”

There have also been public concerns that the frisking measure is similar to treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause, for instance, unemployment and poor parenting.

Lyonpo Damcho pointed out that the police have been engaged in other initiatives, such as partnership programmes between the police and the youth. “But sometimes, police has to take sterner measures and follow a carrot and stick policy,” he said. “Of course, there’ll be many underlying factors, but then we must also take different measures, sweet and sour, to deal with each symptom, under differing circumstances and time.”

Lyonpo added the government was also taking various measures, on employment, counselling and rehabilitation, among others, to address underlying causes.

By Gyalsten K Dorji

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