Case Dropped Against 'Nepal Four'

Tuesday, February 13, 2001

by Alex Buchan

LONDON, February 13 (Compass) -- The case against four Christians detained since October 29 on trumped-up proselytism charges was dismissed February 11 in Rajbiraj, Nepal, after prosecution witnesses failed to appear in court. The judge ordered the four -- three Nepali nationals and one Norwegian -- to be released on February 15.

The dismissal has resulted in great jubilation among Nepal's Christian community.

"The truth for which our brothers stood firm has triumphed," said a member of the Forum for Human Concern in Nepal. The Forum was created in January to press for the release of the four and to highlight the increasing number of anti-Christian atrocities committed by extremist Hindus.

The four Christians include Trond Berg, a Norwegian national; Rev. Devi Bhattarai, a Baptist pastor; Mr. Timothy Rai, a staffer for Campus Crusade; and Mr. Prem Bahadur Rai, a local Christian businessman. All were arrested on October 29 in the border town of Rajbiraj after 15 extremists began to attack Christians holding a two-day seminar in the local Baptist church.

The ensuing fracas led to the police being called in. One witness alleged that Pastor Bhatarai was offering bribes for Hindus to convert to Christianity. The charges were fabricated and should have been thrown out. However, when the arraignment took place on November 1, the courtroom was besieged by extremist demonstrators, including many bussed over the border from India. The judge gave in to the crowd's demands and insisted the four accused Christians stay in jail and await trial.

The baseless nature of the charges was borne out by the absence of all the accusers when the trial was due to begin on Sunday, February 11. According to an eyewitness at the proceedings, "The magistrate stood in frustration waiting for the witnesses to turn up. Only the government attorney was present and disappointed that his star case which had commenced with great fanfare and slogans was about to be dumped in quiet disgrace."

The government attorney demanded a postponement of the hearing, but defense lawyer Hikmat Singh objected, saying everyone had received ample notification of the date and place. Singh also argued that Christians have a right to assemble in their own private rooms and conduct worship; because these Christians were doing just that, there was no basis for claiming that they created a public disturbance.

The judge wrote a four-page verdict asking for the case to be dismissed and for the four to be released from their three-and-a-half month incarceration.

The case does reveal cause for concern. According to a Katmandu pastor who asked for anonymity, "The fact is that some silly people just invented some lies against Christians in the heat of the moment, but the police and the government were quite happy to be browbeaten by extremist pressure into depriving the accused Christians of their religious liberty for three and a half months."

He added, "It's too easy. All you have to do is bring an accusation, and the Christian has to sit it out in jail for months."

Nepal changed from being a Hindu monarchical state to a democratic state in the early 1990s, and a new constitution in 1990 supposedly guaranteed each person "the freedom to profess and practice his own religion."

Proselytizing is banned and carries a three-year jail penalty, but no one thus far has been prosecuted. Eighty-five percent of Nepal's 24.3 million people are Hindu, although Hinduism is no longer the state religion. In the past three years, extremist Hindu organizations from India have set up offices in Katmandu and aggression against Christians is on the rise.

Copyright 2001 Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.