Arrested in a crackdown on civil liberties, politician Ram Mahat was languishing in his jail cell last month when a guard slipped him a daily newspaper. There on the front page, he said, was an article that made his blood boil.
It reported that the U.S. ambassador, James F. Moriarty, had played golf the day before in Katmandu with Crown Prince Paras, whose father, King Gyanendra, was responsible for the jailing of Mahat and hundreds of other perceived opponents of the monarchy.
"Moriarty was planning to play only nine holes, but the royal company spurred him to complete the round," the Katmandu Post reported.
"The ambassador playing golf with the crown prince was a wrong message," said Mahat, a bearded, gangly economist and former finance minister who is a leader of the Nepali Congress party. "It was in very bad taste. We all commented, 'What is this American ambassador doing?' "
Moriarty was traveling in the United States and unavailable for comment last week.
The embassy spokeswoman, Constance C. Jones, said by e-mail that Moriarty "suggested that the crown prince be invited" to play in the annual U.S. ambassador's golf tournament in early May because "he saw this as a good opportunity to get a personal impression of Paras since they had not conversed before."
Like most, though not all, of those imprisoned in the crackdown, Mahat has since been released. Gyanendra, meanwhile, has eased some of the harsher restrictions on press freedom and other liberties that he imposed Feb. 1 in the name of defeating a Maoist insurgency, which has claimed more than 12,000 lives since it began in 1996.
Nevertheless, Nepali politicians as well as human rights workers, lawyers, journalists and other civil-society advocates have expressed disappointment with the United States, which they say is not putting enough pressure on the monarchy to restore multi-party democracy in this impoverished and mountainous land of 27 million people.
In that regard, they say, the United States has stumbled in an early test of President Bush's Feb. 2 State of the Union pledge to make democracy a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy with the "goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Critics also accuse the embassy here of exaggerating the threat of a Maoist takeover in order to prepare the ground for a resumption of arms shipments, known as lethal military aid, which were suspended in response to Gyanendra's seizure of power in February.
"The way to tackle the Maoists is to let the political energy back in our veins," said Kanak Dixit, a U.S.-educated magazine publisher and one of the country's most influential journalists. The U.S. ambassador, he added, "says all the right things about pluralism and democracy, but again and again he is coming down softly on a king who has carried out a regime change."
The State Department has condemned the king's Feb. 1 takeover as a setback to democracy and to the fight against the Maoists -- assertions that Moriarty has repeatedly echoed in Nepal. He also has tried to emphasize U.S. support for democracy by making frequent attempts to meet with senior politicians, including Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was placed under house arrest during the first weeks of the crackdown.
The deputy chief of mission at the embassy, Elizabeth Millard, denied that the embassy had been soft on the king. "I do not want to be in a position to apologize for the situation here," she said in an interview Thursday. "We thought that the steps taken on February 1 were unhelpful. They were a step back from democracy."
But Millard said the threat posed by the insurgency was sufficiently grave that the United States could not afford to withdraw all of its support from the monarchy and army, which continues to receive nonlethal military assistance from Washington while the Bush administration considers whether to resume arms shipments. Embassy officials assert that the Maoists are active in 70 of Nepal's 75 administrative districts.
Democracy is a relatively new concept in Nepal, whose ruling family came to power in 1768. The country became a constitutional monarchy in 1990 and legalized political parties after massive protests. In 2001, Gyanendra ascended to the throne after his brother, King Birendra, was murdered along with other family members in bizarre palace massacre carried out by Birendra's son.
The current constitutional crisis dates to 2002, when Deuba, the prime minister, dissolved parliament, called for new elections and then sought their postponement, prompting Gyanendra to fire him and appoint a caretaker government. A year ago, Gyanendra reappointed Deuba, then fired him again on Feb. 1.
Embassy officials have suggested that the parties and the king will have to show "some give and take" to resolve the political crisis, as Moriarty put it in a recent interview with the Katmandu Post. The officials expressed doubts about the parties' demand for a restoration of the dissolved parliament, which the king has dismissed as unconstitutional, and expressed support for the king's plan to hold municipal elections, which the parties have dismissed as window dressing.
Embassy officials also have voiced concern about reported contacts in New Delhi between Nepali politicians and Maoist leaders, saying an alliance against the king could plunge the country further into chaos.
To critics of U.S. policy here, such statements sound as if the embassy is making excuses for a monarch who, in their view, is largely to blame for the political crisis and therefore should yield to the country's democratically elected politicians.
"They would like us to say something that would be acceptable to the king," said Mahat, of the Nepali Congress party. "What we're saying is that whether the king likes it or not, the solution must be democratic and within the constitution."
Millard cited "some progress, in the release of political prisoners," although she acknowledged that some had been rearrested immediately after being freed, which she described as "very, very troubling."