National strike leads to mass arrests

Local human rights groups expressed serious concerns over the Nepalese government’s heavy-handed reaction to peaceful pro-democracy rallies that have been taking place throughout the Himalayan kingdom to mark the start of a Maoist-backed four-day strike aiming to end absolute rule by King Gyanendra.

“We were shocked to witness police brutality against demonstrators,” said prominent human rights activist Subodh Pyakhurel, who attended marches in the capital, Kathmandu.

More than 1,000 demonstrators were arrested across Nepal, with nearly 450 taken into custody alone in the capital, according to the country’s second largest political party, Unified Marxist Leninist (UML).

Even commuters and shoppers who were not participating in the political rallies were subject to arbitrary arrest, opposition groups have said.

Reports suggest the strike was largely observed throughout Nepal with businesses and schools shut down and public and private vehicles staying off the roads. Many Nepalese supported the national strike out of fear of reprisals from rebels rather than an expression of discontent with the status quo, some local people who spoke to IRIN, said.

According to one of the country’s key rights NGOs, the Centre for Victims of Torture (CVICT), the police used unnecessary violence while making arrests. CVICT’s workers said that the organisation alone treated around 30 people injured while being arrested during marches in the capital.

Arrests in the capital have escalated since Tuesday when the government banned large gatherings and demonstrations. Despite the ban, another large demonstration is planned for Saturday in Kathmandu.

A statement by the UML party today said that two of its party activists have already died from severe injuries during their arrests in the cities outside the capital.

Hours ahead of the strike, Maoist rebels, who have waged a decade-long campaign to turn Nepal into a communist republic, struck at security forces in the south of the country.
Police say the rebels bombed government buildings and fired at security posts in the district town of Malangawa.

Several policemen and rebels were killed in the ensuing fighting. The rebels also claimed responsibility for shooting down a military helicopter.

The United Nations has condemned the violence that appears set to worsen as the strike continues. “While maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the state, security considerations should not be the basis for denying citizens their right to peaceful protest – a right for which virtually all avenues seem to be closing,” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement released on Wednesday.