Sentence effectively reduced to a fine -- a bailable two years, four months.
THIMPHU, Bhutan, January 20, 2015 (Morning Star News) – A court in Bhutan yesterday reduced a sentence of nearly four years in prison to a bailable 28 months for pastor Tandin Wangyal, resulting in the father of three remaining free to attend to his family and ministry.
More than 10 months after Pastor Wangyal was arrested for holding a public gathering in Samtse District, he was granted bail of $1,523 for a sentence reduced from three years, 11 months to two years and four months (and 11 days) in what sources said was a move by the judiciary to dispose of a conviction for which it had no evidence.
“It has been a miracle verdict for me,” a joyous Pastor Wangyal told Morning Star News by phone minutes after the verdict in Dorokha. “I was rather surprised that the court had reduced my sentence.”
The court gave no reason why the sentence was reduced. In September Pastor Wangyal was convicted under Article 71 of the Civil Society Organization Act of Bhutan, which outlaws raising funds for activities “in contravention of the laws of the country” and without prior permission, while another pastor his friend M.P. Thapa (known as Lobzang) was let go after paying $1,678 in lieu of a prison sentence of two years and four months.
Pastor Wangyal had appealed to the court and had been granted a one-year bail after paying a fine of $763 in September last year, so he had to pay only an additional $760. He endured 19 court hearings and nine months of court trials, along with five nights in Samtse Central Jail.
As he waited for a final verdict from the Samtse District Court, he spent three days of prayer and fasting on a mountain top with five friends, a friend wrote in an email.
“He said God prepared him for receiving his appeal’s verdict on Jan. 19,” the friend said.
The two pastors were arrested in Khapdani village, Dorokha area in Samtse District, on March 5, 2014 to attend a foundation-laying ceremony. The Samtse police had confiscated Pastor Wangyal’s laptop hard disk, mobile phone and a movie projector that were supposed to have held evidence against him.
The evening of March 4, 2014 they had spoken at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new house at the invitation of another Christian in Khapdani. They were planning to hold a three-day seminar in the village the next day that included screening of a film, but as they were trying to transport a child who was ill to a hospital and were arrested by Samtse police.
The two was released on bail on April last year after they were detained for 49 days without formal charges.
The Civil Society Organization Act puts restrictions on collections, stipulating that “No person shall collect or ask for any contribution or charity to aid or help any activity, which is in contravention with the laws of the Country, and a collection in a public place must not be conducted unless the promoters of the collection hold a public collections certificate from the Authority and the collection is conducted in accordance with this Act.”
Earlier, the charges against the two pastors were proselytizing and not obtaining permission from local authorities to conduct a gathering; the charges were later altered to gathering and receiving funds to spread Christianity in the country where Buddhism is the state religion and nearly 75 percent of the population is Buddhist, according to Operation World. Hindus make up 22.43 of the population, and Christians account for only 2.11 percent.
Christians are generally allowed to meet in homes or private halls to worship but face obstacles and persecution in trying to do so. Bhutan has numerous Buddhist monasteries and a few Hindu temples, but no church building.
The miniscule Christian community remained underground until 2008, when Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional democratic monarchy after a century of absolute monarchy. Bhutan seeks to preserve and promote the state-endorsed religion of Mahayana Buddhism and its distinct culture through its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Pastor Wangyal’s wife told Morning Star News that the New Year brought them good news.
“We will not have to worry about anything now,” she said. “Our three sons will never have to stay without their father for one day.”