Ratan Gazmere, former prisoner of conscience, 1994.
© Amnistía Internacional/Heleen van der Kwaak
Amnesty International saved my life. I know for sure that without their support … I would be either dead or in jail. Instead I am free.
November 2010 Bhutan
Ratan Gazmere was arrested, tortured and imprisoned in 1989 in Bhutan. Just two letters – “A” and “I” – traced on his wife’s back sparked a campaign that eventually freed him and hundreds of others.
Ratan Gazmere and five other men were arrested in November 1989. They were accused of treason, tortured and detained without trial. Held in solitary confinement, they were told they should expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Their crime? – distributing pamphlets critical of the Bhutanese government’s repressive cultural integration policy.
The policy imposed northern Bhutanese cultural norms, including a dress code, on Nepali-speaking southerners. It sparked mass unrest, with thousands of Nepali-speakers fleeing the country.
Ratan was eventually allowed a visit from his wife, Gauri, in the presence of a police official. Sitting beside her and shielded from view, he repeatedly traced the letters “A” and “I” on Gauri’s back. Gauri was initially puzzled, but friends suggested he may have wanted her to contact Amnesty International – which she did immediately.
That act sparked a campaign that mobilized thousands of our members. In 1990, Ratan was declared a prisoner of conscience. In September 1991, he was made prisoner of the month – one of our earliest membership action campaigns.
The campaign had a decisive impact, recalls Gauri: “I learned that hundreds and thousands of letters were arriving in the capital’s post office in support of Ratan.” A letter from Ratan himself finally made it to Gauri in November.
“Following the 1991 prisoner of the month campaign,” says Ratan, “the pressure mounted on the Bhutanese government on my behalf, which resulted in improved treatment and earlier release from prison.” Ratan was freed in December 1991.
In January 1992, Amnesty International was allowed into Bhutan for the first time. One month later, the King of Bhutan declared an amnesty, releasing 313 political prisoners. The government also banned the use of shackles in prisons and invited the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Bhutan’s prisons regularly.
Following his release, Ratan and Gauri left for the refugee camps in Nepal. There he worked for the rights of Bhutanese refugees, living as a refugee for 18 years before finally settling in Australia. He has worked with international and local NGOs, and continues to work for refugee rights as an Amnesty International member.
“Amnesty International saved my life,” says Ratan. “I know for sure that without their support and all the letters people sent, I would be either dead or still be in jail. Instead I am free.”