Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 25,200,000
GNI/Capita: $230
Life Expectancy: 59
Religious Groups: Hindu (86.2 percent), Buddhist (7.8 percent), Muslim (3.8 percent), other (22 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Brahman, Chetri, Newar, Gurung, Sherpa, Magar, Tamang, Bhotia, Rai, Limbu
Capital: Kathmandu

Ratings Change
Nepal's political rights rating declined from 4 to 5 due to the continued suspension of an elected parliament and the failure to hold new national elections.


Political instability and the ongoing Maoist insurgency continued to destabilize Nepal in 2003. A ceasefire between the government and the Maoists was declared in January, but after the two sides held three rounds of inconclusive peace talks, the ceasefire collapsed in August. In the wake of the resumption of hostilities, the incidence of extrajudicial murders, abductions, and other human rights violations by both sides once again rose dramatically. Meanwhile, King Gyanendra appears unwilling to install an all-party interim government or to restore more fully the democratic process by holding elections, and the relationship between the palace and the main political parties remains unproductive.

King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified this Himalayan land in 1769. Following two centuries of palace rule, the left-leaning Nepali Congress (NC) party won Nepal's first elections in 1959. King Mahendra abruptly dissolved parliament and banned political parties in 1960, and in 1962 began ruling through a repressive panchayat (village council) system. Many parties went underground until early 1990, when the NC and a coalition of Communist parties organized pro-democracy rallies that led King Birendra to re-legalize political parties. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in the prime minister and cabinet and turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy.

In Nepal's first multiparty elections in 32 years, Giraja Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government in 1991. Riven by intraparty conflicts, the NC was forced in 1994 to call early elections, which it lost to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML. The Communists, however, failed to win a majority in parliament. Hopes for a more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in elections held in 1999. The campaign centered on the problems of rampant official corruption, stagnant economic growth, and the Maoist insurgency. Led by Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M, or Maoists) has said that it wants an end to the constitutional monarchy and the feudal structure that persists in many parts of the country.

In June 2001, Gyanendra ascended the throne after a palace massacre in which the crown prince apparently shot to death the king and nine other members of the royal family before killing himself. After Sher Bahadur Deuba became prime minister in July, the rebels agreed to a ceasefire. However, when the rebels broke the ceasefire in November, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency. The government's subsequent decision to use the army to fight the Maoists marked a sharp escalation in the conflict; an estimated 5,000 people were killed in 2002, and Nepal's infrastructure and economy have been devastated.

Political instability heightened in May 2002 when the prime minister dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections to be held in November. When caretaker Prime Minister Deuba, citing the worsening security situation, asked the king in October to postpone the elections, King Gyanendra dismissed Deuba and assumed executive powers himself. While postponing elections indefinitely, he also installed an interim administration headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a former prime minister and leader of a small royalist party. Mainstream political parties termed his decision undemocratic, but were divided on a suitable solution to the political stalemate.

Another cease-fire between the rebels and government forces took effect in January 2003, but the lack of an independent verification process meant that accusations of persistent violations on both sides could not be acted on, according to a report published by the International Crisis Group. Meanwhile, the king appointed a new prime minister in June, choosing Surya Bahadur Thapa, a member of a right-wing royalist party, instead of a consensus candidate that had been agreed on by the main political parties. When a third round of peace talks collapsed over disagreements about the possible formation of a constituent assembly, hostilities quickly resumed in August, and a three-day strike called by the Maoists in September further crippled the economy. Prospects for a resolution to the crisis remain dim, with the political parties continuing to protest the indefinite suspension of the democratic process and the Maoists appearing unwilling to engage in sustained and serious negotiations with a monarchy that is currently operating with limited constitutional legality.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Nepal cannot change their government democratically. The 1990 constitution provides for a 205-seat lower house of parliament that is directly elected for a five-year term and a 60-seat upper house whose members are either elected by national or local government bodies or appointed by the king. During 2003, these constitutional provisions remained suspended; polls that would have elected a new parliament in November 2002 have been indefinitely postponed, and King Gyanendra rules through an interim prime minister and cabinet that he appointed in October 2002. The king's influence is bolstered his authority to wield emergency powers and suspend many basic freedoms in the event of war, external aggression, armed revolt, or extreme economic depression. He also serves as commander in chief of the army.

A wide range of political parties have been allowed to operate since 1990, although the constitution bans political parties that are formed along religious, caste, ethnic, tribal, or regional lines. Recent elections have been free, though not entirely fair. In the 1999 elections, interparty clashes led to several election-related deaths, and Maoist violence caused balloting to be postponed in dozens of districts.

As a result of the escalation in the insurgency, government institutions have all but fallen apart in much of rural Nepal. Elected governments have made few reforms to Nepal's bloated, inefficient civil service, and ministries operate with little openness or accountability. Corruption is perceived to be endemic in politics and government administration. Legislation passed in 2002 disqualified those convicted on corruption charges from contesting political elections for five years and placed the burden of proof in corruption cases on the accused. In May, an anticorruption panel began questioning more than 40 politicians and officials about details of their property holdings. However, compliance with anticorruption regulations remains weak and the prosecution of high-level officials is rare, which contributes to a climate of impunity.

Conditions for journalists deteriorated sharply as the insurgency escalated in late 2001 and have remained poor. Although emergency regulations were lifted in August 2002, journalists are still regularly arrested and detained, and a number have reportedly been subjected to harassment and torture. Media professionals are also under considerable pressure from the Maoists. Suspected rebels murdered a journalist with the state-owned news agency in September, and other reporters have been abducted and threatened as well as being expelled from rebel-held areas. Both the constitution and the Press and Publications Act broadly suppress speech and writing that could undermine the monarchy, national security, public order, or interethnic or intercaste relations. While many private publications continue to criticize government policies, self-censorship as a result of official intimidation is a growing concern. The government owns both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage favors the ruling party, and Nepal's main television station.

Although the constitution describes Nepal as a Hindu kingdom, there is a considerable Buddhist minority. The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but proselytizing is prohibited and members of religious minorities occasionally complain of official harassment. Although the government does not restrict academic freedom, more than 100 teachers have been killed both by security forces and by Maoists, and Maoists regularly target private schools in the rural areas.

Freedom of assembly and association is sometimes restricted. In September, after the Maoists called off the ceasefire, the government ordered a temporary ban on public demonstrations in the Kathmandu Valley and detained hundreds of people who defied the ban. Police sometimes use excessive force against peaceful protestors. The head of the Nepal Progressive Students Union was shot and killed by police during an antigovernment demonstration in April. The government generally allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to function freely. However, both police and Maoist guerrillas occasionally threaten human rights activists to deter them from investigating rights violations. The insurgency has forced a number of NGOs working in rural Nepal to substantially curb their activities.

Trade unions are independent, but they have notched few real gains for workers. By law, workers in certain essential services cannot stage strikes, and 60 percent of a union's membership must vote in favor of a strike for it to be legal. While exportoriented carpet factories have reduced their use of child workers, smaller carpet factories and several other industries continue to depend on child labor. Although bonded labor was outlawed in 2000, it persists in rural areas.

The Supreme Court is viewed as largely independent of the executive. However, lower-level courts are subject to political pressure and endemic corruption, and effective access to justice for many Nepalese remains limited. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects often spend longer in pretrial detention than they would if convicted of the crimes for which they stand accused. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes handcuffed or otherwise fettered.

In ordinary criminal cases, police at times commit extrajudicial killings and cause the disappearance of suspects in custody. They also occasionally torture and beat suspects to punish them or to extract confessions. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations and take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality. Nevertheless, in September, four soldiers were handed down prison sentences after being charged with attempted extortion and kidnapping. Set up in 2000, the official Human Rights Commission has a mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations, such as the extrajudicial killing of 19 people in the Ramechhap district by the army in August. However, the commission lacks enforcement powers and the resources to pursue cases in court.

Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of increased human rights violations in the context of the insurgency, which has affected the majority of Nepal's 75 districts and has claimed more than 8,000 lives since 1996. The poorly equipped police force has been implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes, and the torture of suspected Maoists and alleged supporters. In a report issued in October, Amnesty International noted that it had recorded more than 250 disappearances countrywide.

Domestic human rights groups accuse the government of using tough security laws such as the Public Security Act (PSA) and the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), promulgated in April 2002, to deter civilians from supporting the Maoists. Both laws allow officials to detain suspects for up to six months without filing charges. The government has detained dozens of civilians under TADA, including journalists, teachers, lawyers, and political activists. In addition, as of August 2002, authorities had arrested more than 9,900 suspected Maoists or alleged followers, of whom 1,722 remained in custody, according to Amnesty International.

The Maoists have killed, tortured, or kidnapped civilians, including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties. The rebels have also set up "people's courts" in some parts of Nepal that hand down summary justice. Adding to civilian hardship, the guerrillas fund themselves in part through extortion and looting, and they ordered a number of national strikes throughout the year that paralyzed major urban centers. The Maoists also use forcibly recruited children as soldiers, human shields, and couriers, according to a December 2002 Amnesty International report.

Members of the Hindu upper castes dominate parliament and the bureaucracy, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service, courts, and government offices. Despite an August 2001 provision that banned caste-based discrimination, dalits (untouchables) continue to be subjected to particularly severe exploitation and exclusion. Nepalese officials at times extort money from, or otherwise harass, Tibetan asylum seekers who cross the border into Nepal, and occasionally hand Tibetans back to Chinese authorities, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans escape into exile via Nepal each year, with most ending up in India. Nepal also provides asylum to more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees. International organizations estimate that approximately 100,000 Nepalese are currently internally displaced as a result of the Maoist insurgency.

Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and civil service. although a 2002 law legalized abortion and broadened women's property rights, many other laws relating to property, divorce, and several other areas discriminate against women. Domestic violence and rape continue to be serious problems. The government has taken few steps to curb violence against women or to assist victims, and authorities generally do not prosecute domestic violence cases. Organized gangs traffick some 5,000 to 12,000 Nepalese girls to work in Indian brothels each year, according to estimates by local NGOs. Because the majority of prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned and are unable to obtain help to rebuild their lives.

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