On Saturday, immigration officials denied an American citizen entry into Nepal, and after holding him in interrogation for several hours, sent him back to the United States the same night. The man was on a “blacklist” provided by the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu, which had instructions to not allow the individual to enter Nepal.
But Nepali officials ended up deporting the wrong man, mistaking him for the former representative of the Tibetan Administration to the United States, who shares the same name.
Penpa Tsering, 53, was refused entry on Saturday after officials at Tribhuvan International Airport suspected him of being an agent of the exiled Tibetan leader, according to The Himalayan Times. The ‘real’ Penpa Tsering, however, was in Dharamsala in India at the time of the incident, occupied with an on-going defamation case he has filed against Central Tibetan Administration President Lobsang Sangay and his Cabinet.
“I personally feel sorry for the person who has the same name as mine,” Penpa Tsering told the Post over the telephone from Dharamsala. “It’s very obvious that China is exerting pressure on the Nepali government and it is working.”
Tsering said that a number of Tibetan leadership in the diaspora may have been blacklisted by the Chinese government.
Tsering, who was born in the Indian state of Karnataka,told Tibetan media that he does not possess an American passport and uses a travel document issued by the Indian government for foreign trips.
He, however, confirmed that he had been to Nepal in 2007 when he was a member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile. Tsering was appointed speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile twice: from 2008 to 2010 and again from 2011 to 2016, and briefly served as the representative of the Tibetan administration for North America.
The Post was unable to reach the Penpa Tsering who was sent back to the US on Saturday. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu also did not respond to the Post’s calls.
Despite hosting a sizeable community of Tibetan refugees, Nepal has time and again professed its respect for the ‘One China’ policy and does not allow any ‘anti-China’ activities on its soil. Chinese officials periodically meet with Nepali ministers, officials and politicians to ask that Nepal ‘control’ the Free Tibet movement in Nepal. One part of this attempt to limit the activity of Tibetans in Nepal involves a ‘blacklist’ of people that China has deemed undesirable and thus asked Nepali immigrant to refuse them entry into the country, said government officials.
“Such names do not come to us. The Chinese side directly writes to the Department of Immigration, asking it to refuse entry of people China finds suspicious,” said Ram Krishna Subedi, the Home Ministry spokesperson. “The director general of the Department of Immigration—not the Home Ministry—has full authority to take those decisions.”
Kumar Bahadur Khadka, the chief immigration officer at the airport, said that he had no knowledge about refusing entry to the wrong man and asked the Post to contact the director general. But repeated attempts to reach Director General Eshor Raj Poudel via phone calls and text messages went unanswered.
According to human rights activists, this is not the first time that Nepali authorities have wrongly detained a person named Penpa Tsering.
Last December, a Swiss national also named Penpa Tsering was arrested from his hotel room in Boudha and taken to the local police station for interrogation, said Sonam Sangpo, vice-president of Human Rights Organisation Nepal.
“He was released after a few hours of questioning,” Sangpo told the Post. “His friend had to testify that he is not the same person that the police were looking for.”
A few years before that, another Penpa Tsering, who was travelling from the US with his wife on a travel document, was also detained at Tribhuvan International Airport. While his wife was allowed to enter, he was held in detention overnight, said Sangpo.
The Tibetan community in Kathmandu said they were surprised by the refusal of immigration authorities to allow Penpa Tsering to enter Nepal.
“There are dozens of Penpa Tserings within the community and the immigration officials miscalculated,” a member of the Tibetan community in Kathmandu told the Post on condition of anonymity. “This shows how the Chinese are putting pressure on the Nepal government.”
Rights activists say that the influence of China is growing and Tibetan refugees are feeling the heat.
On June 15, a team of human rights activists had visited a Tibetan settlement in Boudha, spending an hour discussing the problems Tibetan refugees were facing in Nepal. Immediately, after the team left, a Nepal Police team appeared at the scene to inquire about the purpose of the visit, according to Gopal Siwakoti, chairman of INHURED International, an organisation that works for refugee rights.
“We were shocked. The manner in which the police immediately arrived shows the sensitivity of the state,” said Siwakoti. “If Tibetans are living here with freedom of religion and movement, why did the government send back a Tibetan supporter?”
According to Rajendra Singh Bhandari, a former Additional Inspector General of the Nepal Police who looked after Tibetan affairs, incidents such as this one are all too common.
“Many ministers gave undue attention to the Tibetan issue in the past. Some Chinese officials even came to our offices and urged us to arrest this one or that one,” said Bhandari. “If we refused, they would meet with the home minister, even if nothing harmful was happening on the ground.”