Detention of Briton sparks concerns over Nepal's democracy

KATHMANDU: Nepal has detained a British man over his alleged participation in an anti-government protest, just two weeks after expelling a Canadian for criticising Nepal's government on social media.

The detentions have sparked concerns over the Himalayan country's democracy, and suggest that the fragile coalition government is increasingly alarmed by ethnic minorities' demonstrations against the nation's new constitution.

The Home Ministry said Martin Travers, a British painter in Nepal on a tourist visa, was detained after being photographed Sunday wearing a red headband like other protesters who were shouting, "We want our identities recognized!"

If authorities determine Travers, 41, participated willingly in the anti-government protest, he will likely be deported, ministry official Yadav Koirala said.

Earlier this month, a Canadian man was expelled from Nepal for writing a critical social media post that the government said could disturb social harmony.

"Foreign nationals who come to Nepal need to respect our laws," Koirala said. "When they are here under a tourist visa, they should be tourists. Or if they have a work visa, they should be working." He said Nepal and other countries clearly state when giving out visas that visitors should not be involved in anti-government activities.

Rights groups said authorities were going too far in punishing foreigners for speaking out on Nepalese political issues. "Every human being in the country should enjoy basic rights," said Taranath Dahal of the Kathmandu-based Freedom Forum. "Being denied expression is a violation of their basic human rights."

Until this month, such detentions were rare in Nepal, where free speech is guaranteed by law. Criticism of the government is also nothing new from the multi-ethnic and largely impoverished population of 27 million. Since Nepal abolished its monarchy and became a parliamentary democracy in 2006, inflation has doubled to 12 percent while the economy has stagnated, and reconstruction after a set of massive earthquakes last year has barely made progress.

Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli's government struggled for months with protests led by ethnic Madhesis that blocked shipments at the southern border with India, leading to clashes that killed at least 50 people and caused severe shortages of fuel, medicine and other supplies.

Those protests ended in February, but were resumed over the weekend with huge rallies in Kathmandu.

Earlier this month, Oli's 11-party governing coalition nearly collapsed when one member - the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) - threatened to withdraw support over Oli's failure to resolve the constitutional impasse with ethnic minorities.

Observers worry the government, still under threat, may be cracking down on dissent in a bid to maintain control.

"Our government is becoming more intolerant and feeling threatened by these protests," said Guna Raj Luitel, the editor of the country's popular Nagarik newspaper. "Writing on social media or being present at a protest rally is not a big enough deal to be arrested or deported. People should be able to voice their opinions no matter what."

The Canadian man deported on May 5, Robert Penner, filed a lawsuit against the government's department of immigration just before he left. That case is set to be heard by the country's Supreme Court on May 22, according to his lawyer Dipendra Jha.