Police say they are holding comedian Pranesh Gautam in custody for “few more days”The 24-year-old comedian was released from custody on Thursday night but was brought to the court by the police on Friday, after which he was taken back to the police station.
Police have charged comedian Pranesh Gautam with “cybercrime”, a week after detaining him and nearly three weeks after filmmaker Milan Chamling ‘Chams’ Rai filed a police complaint against Gautam for a video on Meme Nepal, a popular Facebook page, reviewing Chams’ recent film, Bir Bikram 2. The police filed a charge sheet at the Kathmandu District Court on Friday.
However, it is unclear when exactly Gautam will be released from custody. According to his lawyer, who spoke to the Post on Friday, Gautam should be released by Friday evening.
But after initially refusing to confirm or deny Gautam's whether or not they were freeing Gautam Friday night, Deputy Superintendent of Police Hobindra Bogati of the Metropolitan Crime Division told the Post late Friday evening that Gautam would be in custody for a few more days.
“Yes, he is custody and will be here until Sunday when we take him to court,” said Bogati. “What's his status really? I don't understand why the media is so interested in his case.”
The hearing on Gautam’s case couldn't start on Friday since he was brought to court only after midday. “It took much longer than we thought it would, but we’re elated that Pranesh will be able to go home today,” Nirab Gyawali, the lawyer, said while waiting for Gautam at the steps of the Kathmandu District Court.
The 24-year-old comedian was released from custody on Thursday night but was brought to the court by the police on Friday, after which he was taken back to the police station.
“I don't see why he would be kept in custody since the charge sheet has already been filed,” said Gyawali.
Gautam’s friends and fellow stand-up comedians who had come to court were disheartened about the case not being heard. But they said they are hopeful after the police allowed their friend to leave custody last night.
Rajina Shrestha, a comedian, was among the handful of people waiting for Gautam in court. She said things felt different than they did on Wednesday when Gautam’s custody was extended for another two days despite the outpour of support.
"We lost a lot of hope on Wednesday but now we’re finally optimistic about how things will turn out for Pranesh," said Shrestha, who was at the protest rally against Gautam’s arrest earlier this week and has been at the court several times to support her fellow comedian friend.
The news about Gautam’s impending release has lifted the spirit of many like Shrestha. But the way Chams, the filmmaker, and the police used the Electronic Transaction Act, which was intended to authenticate banking transactions and discourage cybercrime, to book Gautam has raised larger questions about freedom of expression.
“Pranesh is relieved to not be in custody any more, but he understands that the situation is not over yet,” said Aayush Shrestha, another stand-up comedian, who has been using social media to rally support for Gautam since the threats began last month. “What happened to Pranesh could happen to anyone of us in the future. Self-censoring our thoughts and our content is bound to happen because of this fear of legal repercussions.”
Gautam isn’t the first person to be booked for expressing an opinion online. Police have been aggressively charging people—from journalists to online content creators and the general public—since this law came into effect more than a decade ago. They have been using vaguely worded provisions in the Act to take action against not only journalistic work published online but also social media posts they deem “improper”.
In the last four years, police have registered more than 122 cases against people for their social media posts. Rights advocates say things could go even more downhill for freedom of expression with the proposed IT bill, which, on the grounds of regulating cyberspace, could give sweeping new powers to authorities to curb online content. The very nature of the bill, which is bent on criminalising social media interactions—those could be deemed illegal based on the vague wording of the provisions—puts the users at high risk of being penalised for online posts that “offend” politicians or bureaucrats.
“What we’ve seen happen to Pranesh is only a trailer of what is to come if the provisions criminalising social media interactions are passed,” said Advocate Babu Ram Aryal, who specialises in cyberlaw. “If powerful people and authorities are able to misuse such limited provisions in the ETA, just imagine how much scope the IT bill will provide them to stifle critical voices.”
Although the lawyer said Gautam should be released by Friday evening, police officials at Teku Police Station earlier refused to confirm or deny that they were freeing him tonight. Hours later, the DSP told the Post they would continue to hold Gautam in custody.