The government increased anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. The law criminalized some forms of sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Section 154 of the penal code criminalized “trafficking in persons,” which was defined as a person who “recruits, transports, sells or buys, harbors or receives a person through the use of threat or force or deception within, into, or outside of Bhutan for any illegal purpose.” Inconsistent with international law, this definition required the purpose of the human trafficking crime to be “illegal” rather than specifically for an exploitative purpose. Section 227 of the penal code defined “trafficking of a child” to include buying, selling, or transporting a child for any illegal purpose. Section 379 of the penal code defined “trafficking a person for prostitution” as selling, buying, or transporting a person into or outside of Bhutan for the purposes of prostitution. Section 224 of The Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) criminalized child trafficking but, inconsistent with international law, required a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, and therefore did not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. Section 154 of the Penal Code prescribed punishment ranging from three to five years’ imprisonment; Section 227 from five to nine years’ imprisonment; Section 379 from five years’ to life imprisonment; and Section 224 of the CCPA from five to nine years’ imprisonment. These punishments were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The Labor and Employment Act criminalized forced labor with sufficiently stringent penalties ranging from three to five years’ imprisonment. The judiciary continued to dismiss and refile on lesser charges suspected human trafficking cases due to inconsistencies between Bhutanese law and the international definition of trafficking. During the reporting period, Parliament reviewed and held initial votes on a penal code amendment that would more closely align the penal code’s definition of human trafficking with international standards.
Law enforcement investigated four potential trafficking cases, prosecuted three, and convicted two individuals in two cases, compared to three investigations and one prosecution the previous reporting period. Of the four investigations, the government continued three from previous reporting periods (one sex trafficking and two labor trafficking). In one investigation initiated in 2017, the judiciary sentenced one trafficker to two years’ imprisonment under Section 154 for attempting to send two Bhutanese women abroad for sex trafficking. In another case from 2018, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) charged a woman with child trafficking for forced labor of an 8-year-old girl in domestic work. Despite indicators of trafficking, including severe physical abuse that required hospitalization and amputations, the court dropped the trafficking charges, convicted the employer for illegal transportation of a child, and penalized her with a 9,900 Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu) ($139) fine and 180,000 Nu ($2,540) in victim compensation. The OAG appealed the dismissal of the trafficking charges.
In mid-2018, several hundred Bhutanese participants in a government-approved work-study program in Japan reported indicators of forced labor. The government dismissed the allegations for nearly one year, but after a lawyer representing a group of students filed a criminal complaint against the recruitment agency, the government investigated the case. The lawyer alleged forgery, deceptive practices, harassment, abandonment of a person in danger, and human trafficking. The OAG reportedly could not bring trafficking charges due to lack of evidence of human trafficking as defined in Bhutanese law but charged the agency with 2,887 counts of forgery and 730 counts of larceny by deception. The government also charged the Director-General of Ministry of Labor and Human Resources with four criminal offenses, including illegal issuance of a certificate of registration to an employment agency without required documentation. The prosecution was ongoing at the close of the reporting period.
Many officials continued to lack an understanding of human trafficking, especially internal and transnational forced labor. Additionally, limited police resources hindered thorough investigations, and a lack of training for law enforcement on victim-centered questioning impeded formation of strong cases. Persistent individual officers largely accounted for successful anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts. In partnership with an international organization, the Department of Law and Order (DLO) continued to support anti-trafficking trainings for law enforcement and prosecutors. The lack of diplomatic relationships or mutual law enforcement agreements with destination countries hindered Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) efforts to investigate some potential trafficking cases. Nevertheless, the government continued to coordinate with Indian authorities to extradite a suspected Bhutanese trafficker and assisted French authorities with investigation of an alleged trafficker who had forced a Bhutanese woman into commercial sex in France.