Nepal’s government frees dozens of political prisoners, including former prime minister
KATMANDU, Nepal – The prime minister ousted by Nepal’s king and dozens of other political prisoners were freed Tuesday as the country’s embattled monarch faced a new challenge to his rule – this time from the country’s courts.While the legal actions that freed the prisoners weren’t as dramatic as the opposition protests and rebel attacks that have undermined King Gyanendra, they could present as serious a challenge.The courts’ moves are “a message to the king that he must respect the rule of law,” said Binod Nepal, one of the lawyers who filed suit to get the prisoners released.Sher Bahadur Deuba, the prime minister Gyanendra ousted before seizing power, was freed after Nepal’s Supreme Court abolished the powerful anti-corruption commission that had imprisoned him. Forty-three human rights activists, students leaders and political activists were also released.King Gyanendra seized control of the government in February 2005, saying he was acting to quell a bloody Maoist rebellion and bring order to the country’s chaotic politics.Hundreds of politicians and rights activists have been jailed since then.Hours after walking out of a Katmandu jail at midnight Tuesday, Deuba called for a return to democracy, telling supporters gathered at his home, “I will dedicate myself to this purpose.”In abolishing the Royal Commission for Corruption Control on Monday, the Supreme Court said the panel was set up “against the norms and spirit of the constitution.”The commission was a centerpiece of Gyanendra’s program to clean up Nepal’s politics and quell an insurgency that has claimed nearly 13,000 lives in the past decade.Its abolition was another blow to the king, whose already flagging popularity was underscored when rebels and opposition parties undermined last week’s municipal elections, billed as the first step toward restoring democracy. Voter turnout of only 20 percent was an embarrassing setback.Dip Kumar Upadhaya, an official in Deuba’s Nepali Congress-Democratic party, called the Supreme Court’s decision “a victory for democracy and a humiliating defeat for the royal regime.”Deuba, the highest-ranking politician jailed by the commission, had refused to answer its questions, saying the body was illegal.Despite Deuba’s pledge to push for democracy, the opposition in Nepal remains nearly as unpopular as the king, with 14 years of democratic rule characterized by squabbling and corruption.Gyanendra seized power in part because parliamentary elections were two years overdue and an interim government said they couldn’t organize them because of the Maoist insurgency. At the time, many Nepalis supported the king’s moves.The other 43 men freed Tuesday were released following a series of lawsuits filed by rights groups demanding the government bring charges against them.Most had been jailed for organizing protests in the run-up to the Feb. 8 municipal elections, and an official said that with the polls over, the government preferred to let them go than face uncertain court battles.