42 held for vandalism and burglary of choetens/lhakhangs and sale of religious artefacts

Crime: Some 42 people involved in offences against the Ku-Sung-Thukten (statues, scriptures, and lhakhangs) have been arrested since the police formed a special investigation team (SIT) for the western region last April.

The location of choetens in remote places and lhakhangs without caretakers contributed to the increasing number of such offences, police officials said at a press conference, yesterday.

SIT team leader, Lt Col Phub Dorji said people, involved in such crimes, were after precious artefacts, like the cat’s eye gemstone that fetches a good price in the market.

“People commit such crimes for the monetary value,” Lt Col Phub Dorji said.

Of the 42 detained, 21 were involved in 10 choeten vandalism cases, while five were found to be involved in two lhakhang burglary cases.  Some 16 people, who were involved in seven cases of smuggling of religious artefacts and antiques, were also arrested.

Thimphu, Paro and Wangduephodrang recorded three choeten vandalism cases each, while Paro recorded one.  Police records also show that a lhakhang each in Thimphu and Paro burgled.

Three suspects involved in the burglary of Lemche goenpa in Tsento, Paro were arrested from Phuentsholing, when the men were trying to smuggle two statues of Tenpa Shacha Thuba and Zhabdrung across the border in Jaigoan, India on May 27 this year.

A total of four statues were stolen on May 4 last year, which the police have recovered from the suspects.

Of the three suspects, all from Tsento, two were involved in the burglary, while the third man had helped in looking for customers for the statues.

Police’s investigation found that the two suspects had entered the lhakhang through a window, after removing the iron frame and then opening the inner door using a sharp weapon.

The three suspects are still being interrogated at Paro police station.

Police also nabbed five suspects for vandalising three choetens at Tshaluna in Khasadrapchu, Thimphu.  Three of the five suspects were found to be involved in vandalising two Namgay Khangzang choetens at Jangchimo and Belukho in Tsaluna on April 4 and August 29 last year, respectively.

The other two suspects were involved in the recent choeten vandalism at Jangsakhar in Tshaluna on the night of April 17.

Police’s SIT team recovered an iron lever and a knife from the suspects.  The team is yet to ascertain the stolen items from the choetens.  All three choetens the suspects vandalised are about 200-300 years old.  The suspects are from Tsaluna and the case is still under investigation.

SIT members said that, since the choetens were constructed a long time ago, and there was no record of the zungs (relics) inside, it was difficult to tell what it had been robbed off.

Four cases of smuggling of religious artefacts and antiques in Phuentsholing were also detected and 13 people were arrested.  Another three people were also arrested in Thimphu for smuggling religious artefacts.

Of the 42 arrested, 26 are convicted, including 10 suspects convicted for life, while others are still under investigation.

In the past two years, a total of 565 choetens and 21 lhakhangs were vandalised and robbed across the country.

In 2013, 245 choetens and 10 lhakhangs were robbed.  The number of choetens vandalised increased to 272, while eight lhakhangs were burgled, according to police, last year.  In the first three months this year, 48 choetens were vandalised and three lhakhangs burgled.

The SIT team solved 61 cases and arrested 112 people.  The Royal Bhutan Police formed three groups of SIT for the eastern, western and central regions.  The SIT of western region covers seven dzongkhags: Thimphu, Paro, Chukha, Wangduephodrang, Haa, Gasa and Punakha.

Lt Col Phub Dorji said the SIT was formed because of the increasing number of crimes against the Ku-Sung-Thukten.

By Dechen Tshomo