Vicious precedence

Okay, I’m confused…

On 31st March, Bhutan Today reported that the Chukha district court found the driver who was caught with 10 packets of khaini and 2 packets of cigarettes guilty of a misdemeanor. I’d written that we should welcome the verdict, and posted a copy of Bhutan Today’s article in which the Hon’ble Drangpon was quoted extensively.

But today, Bhutan Today reports that the Chukha district court found Ambar Biswa, the driver who was caught with 10 packets of khaini and 2 packets of cigarettes, guilty of a fourth degree felony and sentenced him to a prison term of three non-bailable years.

Do you smell anything vicious? Here’s today’s article by Bhutan Today:


Virtuous precedence

“linda”, a regular commentator, screamed in my last post:


What upset “linda” was the apparent inconsistency the verdict by the Chukha District Court on a 29-year old bus driver.

On 16th March, in Tanalum, the driver had been caught with 10 packets of Baba chewing tobacco and two packets of cigarettes. He was charged with smuggling tobacco under the Tobacco Control Act.

On 28th March, the driver had been released on bail.

And on 30th March, the district court decided that the driver had not smuggled tobacco, but had possessed the tobacco for his personal consumption. The court ruled that possessing tobacco for self-consumption is a misdemeanor, a bailable offense, and sentenced the driver to a prison term of one year.

That, in short, is what I know about what “linda” calls the “tanalum tobacco case”. My knowledge comes from Bhutan Today. Their website continues to remain inactive, so I’ve attached a copy of their article at the end of this post.

Now for my “say on the tanalum tobacco case”. I welcome the Chukha District Court’s verdict.

Number one, the driver was allowed bail during the trail. Great! After all, the driver couldn’t have been that great a threat to society (or to himself) to deny him bail.

Number two, the case was wrapped up in barely two weeks. Again, great!

And number three, the district court ruled that the accused had possessed tobacco for personal consumption, and that he was not involved in contraband. Great! Absolutely great!

Sending the driver to jail for one year for possessing 10 packets of khaini and two packets of cigarettes is stiff. But the sentence is bailable. And the sentence is required by the Tobacco Control Act.

Convicting the driver of smuggling, and sentencing him to three years in prison, without bail, would be draconian. That would also be wrong. The driver couldn’t possibly be carrying the 10 packets of khaini to sell in the black market. He couldn’t be smuggling.

I’m excited about the tanalum tobacco case verdict for another reason. Precedence. I’m hopeful that the verdict sets a virtuous precedence for future judgments, including Sonam Tshering’s who has appealed to the High Court.

Sonam Tshering, by the way, is represented by Cheda, a partner with UC Associates. Cheda and his legal firm are representing Sonam Tshering and Lhab Tshering pro bono.

Sonam Tshering’s trial at the High Court is expected to begin today. He’s already been in detention for 71 days.

BNCA rules

Most of us support the objectives of the Tobacco Control Act, which is to reduce tobacco consumption – perhaps even eradicate it – in the country. But many of us are alarmed at the severe penalties being handed out under the Act.

First Sonam Tshering, a monk, was sentenced to three years in prison for possessing a mere 48 packets of chewing tobacco. He has appealed the verdict to the High Court.

Then Lhab Tshering, a driver, was arrested for possessing 64 packets of chewing tobacco. He’s currently being tried at the Thimphu District Court, and could also receive a three-year prison term.

And a couple of weeks ago, three people – an engineer, a soldier and an officer – were arrested for allegedly smuggling nine packets of cigarettes. Three people could go to jail for three years each for smuggling nine packets of cigarettes!

Most of us support the objectives of the Tobacco Control Act. But many of us can’t make sense of how the Act is being implemented.

So I was delighted to learn that the Royal Bhutan Police had offered the government a graceful way of resolving this predicament. Kuensel reported that the police had recently written to the Bhutan Narcotics Control Agency asking them a very pertinent question:

Carrying what quantity of tobacco would be considered smuggling or violation of the Tobacco Act provisions?

And Kuensel reported that:

Police officials said for them to enforce the Tobacco Act, there was a need to “quantify” the amount of tobacco products a person was carrying.

“At least the minimum amount should be specified,” a police official said. “Are you going to charge a person, who is caught with a packet of cigarette, like one caught with thousands of tobacco products?”

But, sadly, the government did not seize the opportunity. Kuensel went on to report that:

BNCA officials said the penalty is the same, irrespective of the quantity of tobacco one is caught carrying.

There’s a big difference between smuggling to sell or distribute tobacco products, and illegal possession of tobacco for personal consumption. And that difference should be clearly defined in BNCA’s rules and regulations. But they feel that there’s no need to differentiate between the two.

That’s too bad. If the police’s concerns were accepted, a monk wouldn’t go to jail for possessing a few packets of khaini. A driver wouldn’t face a similar sentence for also possessing khaini. And three people wouldn’t be charged with smuggling nine packets of cigarettes.

At this rate, many more of our fellow citizens will end up in jail.

Crimes and punishments

Better than tobacco?

BBS recently ran two stories:

On 4 March they reported that:

The Thimphu district court yesterday sentenced a 23-year-old monk to three years in prison for smuggling tobacco. He is the first man to be convicted and sentenced under the controversial tobacco act.

Sonam Tshering was caught at the Chunzom checkpoint carrying 48 packets of Baba or chewing tobacco worth Nu.120. He confessed that he bought the chewing tobacco from a shop in the border town of Jaigaon for his own personal consumption.

And on 13 March, they reported that:

Thimphu City police have apprehended a 17-year-old boy and two men for substance abuse. The 17-year-old boy was apprehended from the vegetable market area. He was found intoxicated and carrying several tablets.

After talking to him, police apprehended the two men for dealing in drugs.

One of the men was apprehended earlier this month for illegal transaction of drugs. He was released after paying fine.

Our laws seem to say that it’s better to be caught selling drugs than to be caught possessing tobacco.

Photo credit: BBS

Lhab Tshering

Sonam Tshering has been sentenced. He’s been sent to jail for three years for illegally possessing 48 packets of chewing tobacco worth a mere Nu 98.

Lhab Tshering, a truck driver from Tsirang, will most probably also be imprisoned. 0n 31 January he was caught with 64 packets of chewing tobacco at Chunzom. He had paid Nu 200 for the tobacco in Jaigon.

Lhab Tshering is 24 years old. He is married and has children.

And after Lhab Tshering?

Bhutan’s latest convict

The Thimphu District Court has sentenced Sonam Tshering to jail for three years.

Another lawyer has volunteered to represent Sonam Tshering. So I’m hopeful that he will agree to appeal to the High Court.


Sonam Tshering matters

Sonam’s Lawyer generated a lot of questions about why I was so interested in helping Sonam Tshering, the first Bhutanese to be detained under the Tobacco Control Act.

“lindawangmo”, who was the first to question my motives, wrote:

Ever since Sonam Tshering has been arrested your Blog has been full of support for him and the whole town talks about him. But what disturbed me was ppl hardly talk about the second catch, the driver, no one knows about him, does he have no relatives or friends. Are you backing sonam Tshering because he is a haap, or because as a plain Bhutanese Citizen. If its because of the first one than I think you ask the MP from the drivers village to help him and for the Later one I think you should look into the Matter.

Then “issay” asked:

why did you not mention the other person. Why do you only care for sonam. Is it true that he is from your constituency and a relative as well? Please tell us.

And “YPenjor” lamented:

Only today, I am knowing that you push so much of saving Sonam Tshering because he is a Haap.

Are you trying to fool the public with your foolish notion?

Many other readers also commented. And most of them questioned my motives for helping Sonam Tshering, while ignoring the second person detained under the Tobacco Control Act, a driver.

Thank you for your comments and observations.

Sonam Tshering is from Haa. He hails from Lopa, a village in Samar gewog.

I knew all this when I wrote about Sonam Tshering, but I did not think that it mattered. And if it did, Kuensel had already identified where Sonam came from.

What I did think that mattered when I wrote about Sonam Tshering was that he was the first Bhutanese citizen to be detained under the Tobacco Control Act. And that, without legal counsel, he could face the minimum three-year jail sentence.

That’s why I went to see him. That’s why I asked for volunteer lawyers to represent him. That Sonam was from my constituency did not matter at all.

But it wasn’t just readers of this blog who questioned my motives for mobilizing support for Sonam Tshering. The PM and the health minister also feel that I’m supporting Sonam only because he’s from my constituency. They are wrong.

The PM and Lyonpo Zanglay are wrong. And they know it. They know it because they, like me, were also concerned about Sonam Tshering’s plight. That’s why the DPT offices had also provided Sonam their support and guidance.

Sonam Tshering is from my constituency. And I find his case disturbing – I do not want to see any one, from any part of our country, go to jail for any amount of time, let alone three years, for possessing tobacco worth under Nu 100. But that’s not important.

What is important – very important – is that Sonam Tshering is the first person to be charged under the Tobacco Control Act. How he is adjudged will have a strong bearing on future cases, including that of the second person already detained under the Tobacco Control Act.

That’s why I called for concerned citizens.

Sonam’s lawyer

Sonam Tshering now has legal help. Ritu Raj Chhetri, an accomplished lawyer and ex-PDP candidate, has agreed to represent him free of charge.

Earlier today, I went to the detention center to meet Sonam, and to introduce him to his legal counsel.

I’m hopeful.

Facing the Ban

Kinley Shering, a concerned citizen, has launched “Amend the Tobacco Act”, a group on Facebook. The group is closed but, if you have a Facebook account, you can ask to join the group.

Cee Dee Jamtsho, another concerned citizen, posted this on Kinley’s Facebook group:

Bhutan today

Bhutan Today’s editorial, for readers who do not have access to the newspaper. Their website is woefully inadequate!