Detention due to failure to repay debt, lack of pretrial detention facilities for adults and lack of legal aid and legal representations were some of the issues on the deprivation of liberty in Bhutan, according to a UN Working Group.

On January 14, a delegation from the UN Working Group on arbitrary detention visited the country for 10 days to access the country’s situation regarding the deprivation of liberty.

Vice chair of the delegation, Leigh Toomey, said that detention due to failure to comply with certain commercial agreements have resulted in individuals being detained for an extensive time period particularly in Paro and Thimphu.

This, she said was against international laws and considered an example of arbitrary detention.

“We also recommend that the practice be ceased immediately. The alternatives could be flexible repayment schedule, deduction from salaries, or allowing the debtor to work off the debt rather than being detained.”

The delegates visited 20 places of deprivation of liberty such as police stations, prisons, and rehabilitations centres in Chukha, Thimphu, Punakha, Paro and Samtse.

While the delegation commended the country’s restraint in immigration detention facilities, there were issues in regard to the lack of pretrial detention facilities for the adults and lack of usage of facilities for juveniles. Bhutan today has two pretrial detention facilities for juveniles.

However, the facilities weren’t used until recently. “It is good that the facilities were used for women as well. On the other hand we saw juveniles held in police stations with adults on the so-called civil cases,” vice chair to the delegation, Elina Steinerte said.

Leigh Toomey said that lack of knowledge and rights in terms of legal aid and legal representations was another major issue.

She added that while many didn’t know of one’s legal rights, those who knew couldn’t afford it, as it was expensive. “We understand that legal aid is costly but we recommend the government to arrange alternatives such as private lawyers to provide the service as a condition of them obtaining a practice certificate, and perhaps they could also use students who are studying in law school to provide basic legal advice.”

Along with recommendations on the issues on deprivation of liberty, the delegation also commended the system of presentation of detainees to a court within 24 hours, open-air prisons system, diversion programmes, child and women bench, and growing support from Civil Society Organisations (CSO).

Leigh Toomey said the system of presenting detainees to the courts within 24 hours was really happening. “We consider this to be a positive practice because this is rarely done in other countries, and this is being done in regular basis in Bhutan.”

Speedy trial of one-year period for adults and about two months from the child and women bench was also commended.

Although keeping custody registers in the working group format recommended in 1994 was implemented, many other challenges were similar to the recommendations made earlier, one of the delegates said.

Detaining a guarantor who signs when a person is shifted to an open-air prison or to rehabilitation center in case the person escapes was problematic, delegates said.

Recommendations regarding the need of rehabilitation centre for female drug dependents, dedicated prison facilities for female inmates, and facilities for psychosocial disabilities and social care were among them.

The UN working group delegation also visited Bhutan in 1994 to access deprivation of liberty in the country and made recommendations for which the follow up was done in 1996.

Bhutan was also the first country to welcome a visit by the UN Wokring Group.

The delegates would also produce a report in September this year of the assessment and recommendations.

Phurpa Lhamo