Apologise and appeal

One year +

Today, we celebrated traditional day of offering.

Today is also exactly one year since Sonam Tshering was detained by officials for illegally possessing Nu 120 worth of Baba khaini. Sonam Tshering has already been in jail for one full year.

So today, on traditional day of offering, I thought about how we, parliamentarians, should offer our services to Sonam Tshering and the many others like him who continue to suffer under the oppressive Tobacco Control Act.

First we should apologize. We should apologize and take full responsibility for arrogantly (and foolishly) passing a law that quickly subjected so many of our people to untold pain and suffering.

Then we should appeal. As soon as the Tobacco (Amendment) Bill comes into force, we –  members of the National Council, the ruling party and the opposition party – should collectively appeal to His Majesty the King to grant amnesty to the people who have been incarcerated unjustly because of our foolhardiness.

Sonam Tshering and others like him are in jail because of us. The least we must now do is try our best to get them out.

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.

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.

Calling concerned citizens

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.