On September 22, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that 23 Tibetans held by the Department of Immigration should not be summarily returned to the People’s Republic of China. Earlier that day the group had been released to the care of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

The 23 Tibetan refugees had been detained by Nepalese immigration authorities in Kathmandu since September 11-13 after they were arrested by police in border areas. Under normal procedures, the group would have been promptly handed over to the UNHCR for processing and onward transit to India. In this case, however, the Chinese Embassy intervened and demanded that the Tibetans be returned to Tibet.

Nepalese lawyers working with the Nepalese human rights organization, HURON, on September 21 filed a habeas corpus petition with the Nepalese Supreme Court challenging the continued detention of the 23 Tibetans. The next day, the Court ruled that the Nepalese government could not deport the 23 Tibetans unless and until the Court issues a ruling on the petition, and that the representatives from the Home Ministry and police had to come to the Court to clarify why the Tibetans were arrested.

Sudip Patak, from HURON, Human Rights Organisation of Nepal, a Kathmandu-based rights group said: “It was one of the strongest and most immediate court verdicts we have ever had.”

The petition may now be dropped because the Tibetans were released to the UNHCR. It is expected that the group will be processed and sent to India shortly, where they will come under the care of the Central Tibetan Administration, as per the well established system for handling Tibetan refugees fleeing into exile. (ICT report on the Tibetans’ detention: Chinese interference delays transit of 23 Tibetan refugees detained in Kathmandu as Nepalese PM meets world leaders in New York) Lawyer Indra Prasad Aryal, who filed the petition on behalf of HURON, was quoted by the Irish Sun today as saying: “We had been asking the government to release the 23 Tibetans who had been arrested by police. Initially, state officials told us they would release the detainees. However, when the period of detention lengthened, we were alarmed, especially after the officials told us the Chinese authorities were asking them to deport the group. As for the refugees, they told us they faced torture if they were sent back.” (Irish Sun, Nepal’s apex court comes to Tibetan refugees’ aid). According to local sources who have interviewed them, all of the Tibetans appear to be legitimate refugees and gave reasons for escape that are consistent with thousands of other accounts over previous decades, including to see the Dalai Lama.