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Stubbed out

March 4, 2011

A monk has become the first person to be sentenced in Bhutan for importing illegal tobacco products. He will spend the next three years in jail. He has hundreds of supporters who want the act to be repealed.

The first offender of Bhutan's tobacco ban has been 'stubbed out'
The first offender of Bhutan's tobacco ban has been 'stubbed out'Image: isyste - Fotolia.com

A 23-year-old monk, who was sentenced to three years in jail on Thursday for smuggling and illegally possessing 48 packets of chewing tobacco, is very unhappy.

"I should be punished, but the penalty could have been lighter, as I wasn’t aware of the act," Sonam Tshering told the local newspaper Kuensel after the district court in the capital Thimphu passed the verdict.

In his submission to the court, the defandant had admitted that he "had smuggled tobacco products across the border" from the Indian town of Jaigaon. However, he pleaded that he was "ignorant about the laws and appealed leniency for his crime."

Monks are generally not supposed to smoke in Bhutan
Monks are generally not supposed to smoke in BhutanImage: AP

Facebook users react strongly

The court verdict states: "No defendant can plead ignorance of law as defence to be liberated from the offence that one has committed."

Even as Sonam Tshering was being tried at the court for his offence, Bhutanese had already created a group titled 'Amend the Tobacco Act' on the popular social networking site Facebook.

Many of the members of the group, numbering over 230, reacted strongly against the verdict.

One user wrote: "Today, I made a point to go and meet Sonam Tshering. As I began to talk to him about my purpose of visiting him, his eyes were filled with tears and so were mine. To see him handcuffed like a serious criminal was too much."

"I'm really against the Tobacco Control Act," another said. "The fact that there's this word 'control' in that Act says very much about what kind of government we are heading towards."

Anyone possessing illegal tobacco products can be jailed for three to five years
Anyone possessing illegal tobacco products can be jailed for three to five yearsImage: Robert Janevski - Fotolia.com

"I am just imagining - at the end of this year, almost half the population of Thimphu will be behind the bar," the user added.

"Criminalizing the tobacco user is very harsh and definitely not the solution," another Facebook user wrote. "How many are we going to put behind bars? At the same time the existing measures like awareness campaign and the host of bans are at best ineffective."

"We have parliamentarians, police, judges and minister who use tobacco products. How can such draconian law be passed by parliamentarians which cannot at all be implemented fairly and equally to every one?" yet another asked.

Can opposition support bring change?

The leader of the opposition People's Democratic Party, Tshering Tobgay helped Sonam Tshering to find a lawyer to fight the case.

"I find his case disturbing," he wrote in his blog. "I do not want to see anyone go to jail for any amount of time, let alone three years, for possessing tobacco worth under 100 ngultrum (less than two euros). But that’s not important."

He added that what was important is that Sonam Tshering is the first person to be charged under the Tobacco Control Act. "How he is adjudged will have a strong bearing on future cases, including that of the second person already detained under the Tobacco Control Act."

A 24-year-old truck driver from Tsirang district was detained in January after being caught with 64 packets of chewing tobacco at the check point.

"Lhab Tshering will most probably also be imprisoned," the opposition leader wrote. "He paid 200 ngultrum for the tobacco in Jaigaon. He is married and has children. And after Lhab Tshering?"

Smoking near religious places is prohibited
Smoking near religious places is prohibitedImage: AP

"I have no words to express the hurt, resentment and sadness that this draconian tobacco act has enforced upon Sonam Tshering and his family," responded a user on the opposition leader's blog. "I hope this issue makes it for discussion on the first day of the next parliamentary session."

Many have blamed parliamentarians on social networking sites for passing such a law.

One MP, Sangay Khandu, responded in his blog as follows: "I do not necessarily agree with the ban or the penalty but I believe if it is a matter that needs to be re-discussed then it shall be, keeping legislative processes in mind."

As the first ever person to be convicted, Sonam Tshering's case has received much attention but whether this will help bring about some change in the act or in the prison term remains to be seen. Sonam Tshering has about a week to appeal to the high court.

Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein