The infamous ‘Water Terrorist,’ Sangay Dorji, who had confessed to the police of having repeatedly dumped bathroom cleaner phenol, paint thinner, paint and kerosene in the water supply of five Mothithang buildings from 2014 to 2016 is out after paying Thrimthue or bail.
This was made possible after the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) dropped the third degree charges recommended by the Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) listed in the penal code for such an offence. The RBP found six instances of water poisoning by Sangay Dorji who pumped phenol, paint thinner, paint, kerosene and etc into the municipal drinking water pipeline of five buildings over a two year period.
As per the Bhutan Penal Code the endangerment of a public water source is a felony of the third degree if it creates ‘substantial risk of serious physical injury to the public’. A felony of the third degree attracts a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of nine years for which Thrimthue cannot be paid.
The OAG not going with the RBP recommendation instead decided to charge Sangay Dorji with only a few counts of misdemeanor which is a bailable offence.
The court verdict was issued on 23rd march 2017 with the court giving a three year bailable sentence. Sangay Dorji was subsequently bailed out on 6th April by his employer Pema Jungney, who paid the Thrimthue.
An earlier petition signed by five landlords to the OAG had also asked the employer Pema Jungney to be charged as Sangay Dorji in his first statement had said he did the water poisoning on the instructions of his long term employer, Pema Jungney. Sangay withdrew this statement after the RBP allowed Pema to meet Sangay in prison after which Sangay changed his statement saying he did it on his own. After this meeting the landowners had also said that the RBP had botched up the investigation by allowing this meeting. Pema Jungney on his part claimed ignorance on what his man servant had been doing for the last two years.
Building owners and residents of the buildings are outraged with how the case has finally ended up.
Building owner, Tsencho Wangmo said, “This case has set a precedent and the precedent is that any anti-national or even ordinary people engaged in a water dispute can resort to mass poisoning of the public water supply and all they will have to do is to pay some minimum wage Thrimthue.”
She said, “Recently there was a chemical attack in Syria and the world was outraged, but here in Bhutan a man has been deliberately and repeatedly pumping in dangerous chemicals into the drinking water supply of around 100 children, women and men in five buildings, but he gets away with literally no action.”
Tshering Wangmo 64, a grandmother and tenant who first detected kerosene in the drinking water in September 2016 and alerted her neighbors said, “We assumed that that there would be a far stronger penalty as my son-in-law said that this is a very serious offence, but it is surprising to know the perpetrator got away so lightly.”
She asked, “Does somebody have to actually die for this issue to be taken seriously.”
Dorji another resident said, “This is an outrage. The dangerous chemicals were continuously put over a period of time in the drinking water to clearly cause harm and affect the health of the residents, which includes babies, small children, pregnant mothers and elderly people among others.”
Dorji said, “This now means that people can do mass poisoning of public water systems and get away easily.”
The landlords and residents are questioning the role of the OAG in the acquittal of Sangay Dorji.
Tsencho Wangmo said that though the police had made a mistake in not charging the employer as well they on the basis of their investigation, confession from Sangay Dorji and evidences had atleast recommended a felony of the third degree for Sangay Dorji as there genuinely was ‘substantial risk of serious physical injury to the public.’
The landlords along with many tenants questioned why the OAG went out of its way to disregard the evidences given by the police and drop down the third degree felony charge to a bailable misdemeanor.
They said that the OAG before filing the case had not bothered to contact any of the victims or the affected parties and even after filing the case no information was shared on the charges etc. A landlord said far from that the OAG did not even bother to inform the affected parties of the verdict.
The prosecuting OAG lawyer in the case Sangay Tshering said that it was not his own decision to downgrade the charges but that of the corpus or a committee of the OAG.
Sangay said that the charges were downgraded on the ‘principle of lenity or leniency’. He said that the police did not provide any medical records to show health damages. The lawyer also said that the chemicals went into the tanks of five buildings and so the chemicals would be dispersed and as a result the quantity would be very small. He said while there was a lot of psychological trauma but the penal code did not cover this.
However, land lords and tenants are questioning the OAG’s reasoning of downgrading the charges.
A tenant said, “We have all drunk the phenol, paint thinner, paint, kerosene and god knows what else over the years so there will definitely be health effects in the long run, and since we did not know about the poisoning going on for so long there was no way to co-relate any past health issues with the water.”
She said, “The OAG’s argument does not make sense because if we did produce health reports then the charge should be upgraded to a first degree as per the penal code which is life imprisonment.”
“Even the RBP’s investigation had clearly established that there was ‘substantial risk of serious physical injury to the public’ which falls in the felony of third degree as per the penal code. So how can OAG decide that the dangerous chemicals and pollutants dumped six times in two years in our drinking water supply is not a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the public,” she added.
Other tenants and landlords also countered the OAG’s reasoning on the quantity of chemicals being very small. They said that their own experience showed that in just one instance the inside of the big water tanks of five buildings had been gone red with paint. They said that paint has lead and lead in even the smallest quantities not only harms adults but is especially bad for the organs and the mental development of children.
The OAG lawyer said that the OAG had kept the door open for the landlords to launch a civil suite of their own against the employer Pema Jungney for any damages.
The landlords said that they will get together to discuss the issue and see what can be done.