Kathmandu: Nepalese authorities Wednesday charged a prominent political activist with treason over calls for a separate homeland for the marginalised Madhesi community living in the country`s southern plains, his lawyer said.
Police arrested Chandra Kant Raut, a former scientist who has a doctorate from Britain`s Cambridge University, last month and have detained him for weeks while preparing charges.
"CK Raut has been charged with treason, if he is found guilty, he could face life imprisonment," said his lawyer, Dipendra Jha.
The Madhesis, who live in Nepal`s Terai region bordering India, have long demanded greater political autonomy.
But lawmakers in Kathmandu have struggled for years to agree on a draft constitution that would address their demands by dividing the country into new federal states.
Civil society activists warned the charges against Raut could spark violent protests in the Terai, home to around half of the Himalayan nation`s 27-million population.
Raut, who has repeatedly called for an independent state for Madhesis, went on an 11-day hunger strike to protest his arrest, before agreeing to end the fast after senior government officials visited him in hospital last week and pledged to free him.
"The state has behaved in a shocking and cruel manner, they have misguided him and backtracked on their commitment," Jha told AFP.
Calls to government officials were not answered.
"People in the Terai are sensitive about his arrest...the government`s move will add fuel to the fire," said Tula Narayan Shah, executive director of the non-profit Nepal Madhesh Foundation.
"Just words do not disintegrate a country. At a time when the country is writing its constitution, he simply voiced his opinion," Shah told AFP.
The Madhesis dominate the Terai, a fertile region known as Nepal`s bread basket, and have long complained of discrimination by high-caste highland communities.
Nepal has been struggling to draw up a constitution and conclude a stalled peace process begun after former rebel Maoists laid down arms in 2006, ending a decade-long insurgency and paving the way for the country`s first post-war polls two years later.