Kathmandu: Armed police have blocked thousands of Tibetan exiles in Nepal from voting for a new government-in-exile by forcibly seizing ballot boxes, police and activists said.
Witnesses said police stormed three separate voting centres in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu, home to almost 9,000 Tibetan exiles, as the election was being held on Sunday.
"This was in total violation of our human rights," said one exile, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We believe everybody should be allowed to vote."
Thousands of Tibetans living in India, Bhutan, Nepal, Europe and the United States took part in Sunday`s vote, a preliminary election for a new prime minister and parliament in exile.
Kathmandu police chief Ramesh Kharel confirmed the seizure of ballot boxes and said the action was taken to prevent what he termed an "illegal vote".
"The Tibetans are living in exile in Nepal. It is illegal for them to carry out elections here, so we seized the ballot boxes," he said.
Nepal shares a long border with Tibet and is home to around 20,000 exiles, who began arriving in 1959 when a failed uprising against Chinese rule forced their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile.
But the Nepalese authorities are under mounting pressure from Beijing to clamp down on what it calls anti-China activities, and the government has said it will not tolerate demonstrations against Chinese rule in Tibet.
Mary Beth Markey, president of pressure group the International Campaign for Tibet, criticised what she called "an unwarranted intrusion by the Nepalese police against Tibetans` exercise of their democratic right to a free and fair election”.
"In respect of the democratic process, the ballot boxes must be returned to the Tibetan community in Nepal as a matter of urgency," she continued.
A final round of voting will be held in March and is expected to elect more young members to the Tibetan parliament-in-exile.
Tibetans believe the new generation of leaders will be particularly important given the advanced age of the Dalai Lama, who is 75.
He has been in hospital twice in recent times and there is concern that his death would damage the cohesion and momentum of the Tibetan movement that has relied for so long on his leadership.