Nepal's King Urged to Continue Commitment to Human Rights by Releasing Women Imprisoned for Abortion

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New York, NY
Women’s rights groups are urging King Gyanendra of Nepal to continue his commitment to human rights by releasing women imprisoned for abortion and related charges. As is tradition, each year the King of Nepal grants amnesty to some prisoners on his birthday.

In 2002, King Gyanendra signed into law a bill that legalized abortion in addition to bringing about sweeping changes in many other discriminatory laws. Despite the fact that abortion has been legal in Nepal since September of 2002, more than 50 women remain behind bars – many of them having served long sentences. At least two of the women have exceeded their prison terms and a number of appeals remain stuck in the court’s bureaucracy.

"We hope the King will grant amnesty to these women as part of his efforts to guarantee human rights in Nepal," said Melissa Upreti, legal adviser with the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Many of these women have been separated from their children and abandoned by their families, they are languishing in jail cells subject to gender and class discrimination and violations of due process. Now that the silence around the unjust imprisonment of these women has been broken, the government must immediately step forward and take full responsibility," added Upreti.

Groups are urging King Gyanendra to release the women on July 7, as part of his birthday celebrations. The Forum for Women, Law and Development and the Center for Reproductive Rights have petitioned the King and his cabinet to address the situation of the women still imprisoned. The women have also submitted their own appeal to the King. Many of the women have served more than half their prison sentences, which is generally considered grounds for a pardon.

Abortion is now legal in Nepal under certain conditions, including upon request during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when a woman’s life or health is in danger, and in cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment.

The Nepali government prosecuted the majority of these women for the crime of "infanticide" but a closer examination of their case histories reveals that many of the women suffered from miscarriages, stillbirths or induced abortions, proper distinctions were never made. In most cases, these women were denied legal representation and subjected to other due process violations, which raise serious doubts about the credibility of the charges levied against them and the legitimacy of their imprisonment. Even in cases where women have been charged with abortions, their sentences have often exceeded the prescribed limit.

While Nepal became a democratic country 12 years ago, women have only just begun to experience true democracy. The passage of the 11th Amendment Bill last September modifies a host of discriminatory laws in the Nepal Civil Code that affect women, ranging from equal rights to grant citizenship to children and equal rights to ancestral property, as well as safe abortion.

At least 7 women have been prosecuted for infanticide since the legalization of abortion, despite case histories indicating in some instances that their pregnancies actually ended in either induced or spontaneous abortions. This marks a continuation of the same trend that existed before legalization, which involved charging women who had abortions with infanticide in order to impose harsher sentences.