Tibetans in Nepal say they were held for weeks

KATMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Tibetan refugees in Nepal said Friday they were held for weeks in police custody without charges or access to legal aid in a sign that authorities are bowing to pressure from China.

Sonam Chodon and Sonam Tashi said they were picked up by police who broke up a small rally in front of the Chinese Embassy's visa office on March 10, and were released only this week.

They said they were held much longer than previously in what they suspect was the result of the increasing pressure from China on Nepal to clamp down on Tibetan protests.

"We were held without being able to consult with lawyers. We signed papers written in language we didn't understand and made to stamp our fingerprints in those documents," Chodon said in an interview in a small rented house located at the southern edge of Katmandu, where some 1,500 Tibetans live.

Police officials did not immediately answer phone calls seeking comment Friday, but on Thursday, Nepal's Foreign Ministry issued a statement denying accusations in a report by Human Rights Watch that the government was mistreating Tibetans.

"The refugees resident in Nepal are enjoying rights as per the prevailing laws and they are expected to respect the laws of the land," the statement said. "Nepal has been making it clear time and on that refugees sheltered here cannot work in contravention of the domestic laws and the principled foreign policy path of the nation."

Nearly 20,000 Tibetans who fled their homeland now live in Nepal. Others travel through Nepal to India, where their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, lives in exile. They often use the treacherous mountain trails across the Himalayas to reach Nepal.

Nepalese security forces regularly block Tibetans who attempt to demonstrate near the Chinese Embassy's visa office in central Katmandu. The protesters are generally removed by force and detained for few hours in police stations.

Chodon said that police presence around the area where the refugees live has significantly increased.

"We are under constant surveillance and we are sometimes afraid just to leave our neighborhood," she said.

Police in riot gear were visible in the narrow alleys, keeping close watch on the refugees and visitors.

"Tibetans in Nepal are scared now because the government has threatened that if there are any anti-China protests, they would be jailed for many days," Chodon said. "Many have fled from here and those who remain are keeping low profile."

In the report earlier this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that China was pressuring Nepal because it did not want the Tibetan refugees to protest Chinese rule in their homeland.

The group said Nepal continued to offer some protections to Tibetans, but was succumbing to Chinese demands that it limit the number entering its territory. It said the number of arrivals dropped from an annual average of 2,000 to about 200 in 2013.