DCSIMG

The man who set himself on fire to stay in this country

UDDHAV Bhandari had made his choice: his fate would not be decided in the calm, quiet arena of a British courtroom.

As he waited for his last-gasp asylum hearing, Mr Bhandari's thoughts turned to his homeland, Nepal, a place he was utterly terrified of being sent back to.

Mr Bhandari, 40, doused himself with petrol from a container he had smuggled into the fourth floor of the Eagle Building on Glasgow's Bothwell Street, home to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, and set himself on fire.

Shocked staff attempted to put out the flames that were engulfing Mr Bhandari's body by using their own clothes.

His lawyer, who was also in the building, rushed to the reception after hearing the commotion to find his client on fire.

One eyewitness told The Scotsman the flames were "all over his body". He said: "I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

"It's just so shocking and sad that someone can be so desperate. People wonder how he was able to smuggle petrol into the court but the real question is what is it about the system that makes people commit such desperate acts."

This latest and most horrific act by a failed asylum seeker highlights the human cost of the system's bureaucratic delays, complicated form-filling and legal hurdles.

One immigration lawyer, who did not want to be named, said Mr Bhandari's attempted self-immolation was the third desperate act of self-harm by an asylum seeker in the past year north of the Border.

The other instances involved a woman throwing herself out of a window and an Algerian who doused himself in petrol in his solicitor's office. The lawyer was so upset that he is understood to have given up immigration work.

The scene in an ambulance as paramedics fought to save Mr Bhandari's life was a million miles from Kathmandu and the extraordinary tale that brought him to Scotland.

As a policeman, Mr Bhandari rose through the ranks to become a bodyguard to the Nepalese royal family. But his colleagues turned against him after he exposed corruption in the country's police force.

In what could be regarded as a punishment, in March 1999, he was posted to Dhading - a remote and dangerous region of Nepal under the influence of Maoists.

During a gun battle in which Mr Bhandari was involved, the Maoist deputy commander of the area was killed in the crossfire.

That August the Maoists sent a letter threatening to kill Mr Bhandari. Two months later, his bosses agreed to bring him back to headquarters in Kathmandu.

But in March 2000 he was suspended from duty and in September he was sacked for his involvement in the shooting.

As a target for both the police and the Maoists, Mr Bhandari faced what seemed like an insurmountable task of finding work.

The married father of a young son and daughter approached former contacts at Nepalese newspapers such as Jana Aastha and Ghadna Ra Bichar and managed to get work as a journalist.

In spite of his encounters with the most powerful forces in the land, Mr Bhandari kept fighting "moral turpitude" in Nepal.

He took compromising photographs and supplied information to Jana Aastha accusing one of the country's most famous film actresses of being a prostitute, inflaming the authorities further.

Mr Bhandari claimed that clients of Shreesha Karki, 24, included the Crown Prince, politicians and senior military personnel.

The accusations in Jana Aastha, a leftist newspaper with a tradition of exposing such behaviour, provoked uproar.

After receiving a letter from the criminal investigation unit in July 2001 ordering him to appear at a police station "in connection with enquiries" he fled Nepal. The following month he arrived in the UK and claimed asylum on arrival.

But that was far from the end of the story. On 22 October, 2002, Miss Karki hanged herself - which resulted in mass grief and anger. Thousands of demonstrators marched on his former newspaper's office forcing its editor Kishore Shreshta to flee. They marched through Kathmandu burning copies of the newspaper and chanting: "Death to yellow journalism, death to Jana Aastha."

Police located the house where the nude photographs of Miss Karki had been taken and Mr Bhandari was identified as the photographer. The police then began preparing to charge journalists involved in the story - which they say incited her suicide.

Mr Bhandari has since lived a quiet life in Edinburgh, pinning all his hopes on being granted asylum and his wife and two children being able to join him.

Described by those who knew him as a slight and quiet man who was always smiling, he devoted long hours to volunteer work helping salvage and restore bicycles for disadvantaged children. He also helped at the Peace and Justice Centre run from a church in the capital's west end.

He kept in constant touch with his family and would delight in the videos his wife sent him of family milestones such as the children's birthdays. He responded with own videos of his life in Edinburgh among his new friends, Scottish and Nepalese.

But his asylum application was rejected. Mr Bhandari appealed.

The judge accepted the facts of Mr Bhandari's case but ruled that the risk of persecution in Nepal was not sufficiently serious.

The judge also ruled that because of his high-profile status he would be "protected" in Nepal.

Last week's hearing in Glasgow - "second stage reconsideration" - was to be heard on video link to three judges in London.

If his case had been rejected again, he would have had to go to the Court of Session then the House of Lords, which legal experts have said would have been a highly unlikely scenario.

Mr Bhandari is fighting for his life in intensive care in Glasgow Royal Infirmary. He is heavily sedated and has severe burns.The hospital last night said he was "serious".

Stewart Wightman, from Edinburgh, a friend of Mr Bhandari said he had last seen him the day before he set fire to himself and since visited him in hospital.

"I spoke to him on the Tuesday and offered him a lift to Glasgow. There was no hint he had anything like this on his mind.

"I started to get worried when he hadn't made contact so I telephoned his solicitors to see what was going on. I went through to Glasgow on Thursday to see him and he's certainly seriously ill. He's got burns to his chest, face and arms and has a chest infection. He is sedated so I don't know how much of my visit he could take in."

Mr Wightman said he had met Mr Bhandari four years ago through his wife who lectures at Stevenson College in Edinburgh, where Mr Bhandari was learning English.

"Uddhav is a super guy, helpful and kind. He became a friend of the family and attended my daughter's wedding. He took me along to New Year celebrations organised by the Nepalese community in Edinburgh. He had an aura of calmness and kindness."

Matt Lynch, a mechanic at the Bike Station - a charity project for recycling bicycles which honoured Mr Bhandari with the Volunteer Award of 2006 - said: "We just don't believe what we're hearing.The guy was a packhorse and worked tremendously hard at everything, whether it was moving scrap or recycling. The minute he walked in the place brightened up.

"He helps many organisations and probably does the work of ten people. If anyone deserves to stay in this country it is him."

Janet Fenton, co-ordinator, at the Peace and Justice Centre in Edinburgh, added: "He was a wonderful person who came to volunteer here around February last year. Apart from telling us he was an asylum seeker he did not talk about his situation.

"He was polite, respectful and intuitive and his very presence was such a reminder of the world we're trying to create. He had such integrity and a loving attitude."

A spokeswoman for the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal said: "We are aware of the incident and we are investigating the circumstances at the moment and reviewing security in the building. Normal security procedures were in place on the day. These include the use of security wands which essentially are metal detectors.

"We have from immediate effect placed a ban on all liquids taken into the court."

• NEPAL is going through a political transition and is in the early days of a democratic revolution involving a power sharing agreement between Maoist rebels and King Gyanendra.

However the parliament has now, in effect, reduced the monarchy to a ceremonial role. It has also ended the country's status as a Hindu state and turned it into a secular state.

The breakthrough last year ended the country's long civil war. The king had seized power in February 2005 after accusing Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government of failing to win the support of rebels for peace talks. However, analysts suggest the king was trying to create an absolute monarchy.

His plans backfired, putting him in a weakened position and forging an unexpected alliance between his opponents and the rebels.

The catalyst for the Maoist ceasefire was the king's decision in April 2006 to end his controversial direct rule and restore parliament.

He backed down after weeks of strikes and huge demonstrations. He faced international condemnation after a number of protesters died at the hands of security forces.

"Opposition" political parties, now in government, promised to work with the Maoists as a precursor to bringing them into the government. The Maoists' weapons were put under UN supervision.

For the present it would seem the monarchy issue has been resolved.

Let Bhandari stay, say MSPs amid calls for policy change

THE Bhandari case last night brought new condemnation of the government's policy for the treatment of asylum seekers.

MSPs demanded that Mr Bhandari should be allowed to stay in Scotland and called for changes to the system to allow more refugees to remain in the UK.

The Home Office last night said the case was "deeply regrettable" but said that it would not affect the decision on Mr Bhandari or lead to a change in policy.

But Patrick Harvie, a Green MSP for Glasgow, said: "For many years the asylum system has pushed people to desperation. You would not take an action like that unless you were at your wit's end.

"We have seen so many people cases where families or individuals have been brutalised to the point that they are unable to engage in the process any more. They are broken and then they are denied asylum or the right to remain in the UK.

"For this system to have no sense of human values or compassion is simply brutal."

Mr Harvie called for an end to the Home Office's quota system and for judgments to be made only on the circumstances of the asylum seekers.

He said that the UK had the capacity to take a larger number of asylum seekers than it did now.

Tommy Sheridan, the leader of Solidarity, said: "Scotland should be a haven for people seeking asylum who face problems with the governments of the country which they are being returned to.

"It would be cruel to eject a man like this if he has been here for six years. After that length of time it seems ridiculous to throw him out. If he had been here that long he should be allowed to stay."

However, a spokeswoman for the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate said: "We accept that asylum can be a complex and emotive issue, and that people are entitled to use their right to peaceful protest against elements of government policy.

"Nevertheless we remain convinced that our firm but fair approach of providing sanctuary to those fleeing persecution whilst seeking to remove those who have no right to be here is the correct one.

"This country has a long and proud tradition of providing safe haven from those fleeing persecution and this government will never close the doors to those in need of refuge."

She added: "However, the asylum system must earn the confidence and trust of the public by being robust and resistant to abuse.

"The measures we have introduced are designed to ensure that the asylum process quickly identifies genuine refugees while returning those who are not deemed to have a well-founded fear of persecution."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Refugee Council said: "This is clearly a terrible tragedy for the individual and his family but we are not in a position to comment on the specifics of this case."

PETER MACMAHON

SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT EDITOR

 
 
 

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