Sonam Tshering is 23 years old. He is charged with smuggling tobacco. And, if convicted, he could be jailed for 3 to 5 years.
If Sonam Tshering did indeed smuggle tobacco, he should be sent to jail. That’s what the Tobacco Control Act sanctions. The laws of the land must prevail.
But think about this law. Think about how draconian the Tobacco Control Act really is. Sonam Tshering could go to jail for 3 years for possessing four packs of Baba chewing tobacco. Each pack has a dozen packets. So he had a total of 48 packets of chewing tobacco.
Each packet of Baba has 10 grams of tobacco. And carries a maximum retail price of Rs 2 per packet. So he was caught with 480 grams of tobacco that has a street value of Rs 96 in India.
Sonam Tshering could be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years for possessing Nu 96 worth of tobacco. Nu 96 is less than the current daily minimum wage.
As of today, Sonam Tshering has already spent three weeks in detention.
I went to see Sonam at the detention center. He was confused. He was distraught. And he was scared. Very scared.
Sonam is being charged for smuggling tobacco. The Thimphu District Court has already begun to hear his case. But he does not have a lawyer. Without one, he will not be able to argue that he was not smuggling tobacco; that 480 grams of tobacco could not be worth much even in a black market; and that he had purchased the tobacco for self-consumption.
Sonam Tshering possessed tobacco. That is against the law. So he should be punished.
But he shouldn’t be sent to jail for 3 to 5 years for possessing a mere 480 grams of chewing tobacco worth less than Nu 100. That would be wrong. Even if it is legally correct, it would still be wrong … and dangerous.
So I’m calling for lawyers. Concerned citizens who will represent Sonam Tshering and somehow convince the courts to dismiss the case, or, at the very least, to lighten the sentence.
And I’m calling for volunteers. I’m calling for concerned citizens who will lead a movement to amend the Tobacco Control Act.