CSW has called on the government of Nepal to drop all charges against Pastor Keshav Raj Acharya of Abundant Harvest Church in Pokhara, who was first arrested on 23 March, amid concerns for his wellbeing. His case highlights serious concerns regarding the rule of law in Nepal.
Pastor Keshav was arrested by the Kaski District Police after a video of him saying that the coronavirus could be healed through Christian prayer was uploaded on YouTube on 22 February. The pastor denies uploading the video. According to Pastor Keshav’s wife, Junu Acharya, the pastor was arrested after a man called him requesting to visit the pastor’s house to pray for his sickwife, who he claimed had contracted the virus. Not long after the couple arrived at the pastor’s home, several other police officers arrived and made the arrest.
The pastor was kept in police custody and charged for misleading the public about the virus. He was released on bail set at NR5000 (approximately £34) by the Kaski District Administration on 8 April. However, he was re-arrested without explanation at the premises of the District Administration office on the same day, and charged with “outraging religious feelings” and “attempting to convert” under Sections 156 and 158 of the Nepalese Penal Code.
Following the new charges, the District Court ordered a bail amount of NR500,000 (approximately £3400) on 19 April. Pastor Keshav was returned to prison as he was unable to pay the bail amount. His wife posted bail on his behalf on 13 May, which was accepted by the court. However, the police arrested him for the third time on the same day at the court premises. He was detained in custody and immediately transferred to Dolpa District Police Office, which is one of the most remote districts of Nepal where no means of transportation is available, for further investigation.
Senior Counsel Govinda Bandi, who is defending Pastor Keshav, told CSW: “[Pastor Keshav’s] repeated arrest is a very worrying sign of the trajectory of religious freedom in this country. The police are clearly acting outside the scope of the constitution and without any regard to the rules of criminal procedure. There seems to be a concerted effort to use the draconian provisions in the Penal Code to target him that will also threaten the wider minority community with penal sanctions for practicing their religion or belief. Furthermore, the whole allegation against him, is forged on unfounded and prejudiced allegations. This is without a doubt a targeted persecution and a travesty of our justice system.”
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said “We are deeply concerned about the handling of this case and the precedent that it is setting. Nepal is seeing a growing trend in state-backed intolerance towards religious minorities who should be able to practice, promote and propagate their religion. The penal law has clearly emboldened state actors to behave in a biased way. We urge the authorities to re-evaluate their actions and drop all charges against Pastor Keshav. CSW also calls on the international community to encourage Nepal, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to respect its international commitment to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief under Article 18 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.”