In 17 August, as the long-delayed third round of peace talks were on way in the western village of Hapure, Rolpa, anywhere from 17 to 21 people were killed by security forces in the eastern village of Doramba, in Ramechhap district. It was a major violation of the ceasefire code of conduct, and the Maoist pulled out of negotiations on 27 August.
A preliminary report by the Army Human Rights Cell (AHRC), based on interviews in the Ramechhap district centre, concluded that the Maoists had provoked these deaths by leading two armed confrontations against a security patrol. Five had died in one, and 12 in another, and that is how official media reported the news on 18 August.
Subsequently, an investigation team formed by the National Human Rights Commission went to the site and concluded that on 17 August, security forces in plainclothes had raided a Maoist meeting, killing one person on the spot and captured 19 alleged Maoists. The captives were then led to a forest and, with their hands tied, summarily executed. One other person, an 18 years-old Maoist girl, was reported missing.
The NHRC's report, strong on eyewitnesses and forensics, prompted the AHRC to begin a second investigation, and is posing the most serious challenge yet by a civilian institution in Nepal for the military to own up to human rights violations. The Head of the Army Human Rights Cell, Brigadier General BA Kumar Sharma and Member of the National Human Rights Commission Sushil Pyakurel talk to Manjushree Thapa about the deaths in Doramba.
On the Doramba investigation:
The only thing the army have officially given us, so far, is a letter denying that a massacre took place in Doramba. That was from before we investigated the case and sent them our report. We have received no formal response to our report. That is their usual manner, the army always undermines us.
Our investigation was aimed at discovering whether there had been an exchange of fire at the site of the Maoist meeting, or whether the Maoists had been taken somewhere else and killed. We have only one finding: those people were killed after being taken into custody. The army are now saying we produced a one-sided report. There is no basis for this. For the first time in Nepal, bodies were exhumed. We examined the bodies, we saw their bullet wounds.
In our report we have asked for an independent, extensive investigation of this case. Our attitude is very positive. We have established that people were killed after being taken into custody. But how were they killed? And who was responsible? This remains to be investigated.
My expectation was that upon receiving our report the army would consult us. We are ready to provide them information. We are being supportive. BA Kumar Sharma told reporters that they are re-investigating the case. But even that, they have not told us officially.
On the army's recent court-martials of its human rights violators:
The army has not provided us any official information about the court-martials. We are a statutory body. They are obliged to send us information, but they don't.
On the differences in working with the police and the army:
It is more difficult to work with the army than with the police. The police is directly under the Home Ministry, and they are under civilian control, and we can make them accountable. This is my experience. Now, under the constitution, the Royal Nepal Army is under the Defence Ministry. But to be honest, the Defence Ministry merely works as a messenger. Anything we say to them, they will pass on to the army. They're like a post box.
All this makes us look like enemies of the army. Whereas we are just trying to enhance their legitimacy. They are a legitimate force of a democratic country. If they don't observe democratic norms, how can they ask the rebels to? That is the problem.
Change is taking place, but it depends on what pressure is placed. It's sad to say that if the army gets some international pressure-and that too from certain persons in the international community-they will effect changes. They don't respond to national pressure.
On the AHRC's work in human rights:
Even before the conflict, the army trained its personnel on the constitution, and on national and international humanitarian law. Now, on the ground, we find that despite our best efforts, some personnel commit wrongdoings. Their commanders are held accountable if they do not take legal action, so they do not overlook wrongdoings.
We start investigations based on any information-newspaper reports, petitions, even phone calls. We conducted 13 court-martials last year, sentencing one man to 7 years in jail, and forcing one Major to resign after he was found obstructing an investigation. We even took action against a unit that fired, at night, by mistake, on five schoolboys. In more minor infractions, our units conduct the investigations by themselves.
On the challenge of observing human rights during combat:
This is not a war, it is terrorism. To combat it, we must investigate people. Sometimes we can't let a detainee go, because if he disappears, our investigation is ruined. Now are such detentions illegal or legal? We try as best we can to receive the CDO's authorisation when detaining people in our barracks.
Educated people like you and I may know about human rights. But our soldiers see officers shot in the streets. One of our boys, returning home, was slaughtered like a goat at a Bhagwati temple. I can tell our soldiers-you can't kill unarmed people, you must bear the arms that the government gave you responsibly. But they will ask me: does wearing a uniform mean that I don't have human rights, that I don't have a right to life? Just because I wear a uniform, can others harm my family? Such big questions are arising.
On the investigations into the Doramba case:
Our four-person preliminary investigation team could not go to Doramba out of safety concerns. They talked to army and police personnel in the district center, and to civilians and the CDO. Our soldiers spoke confidently and smoothly about what happened; they didn't seem to be making things up. Two incidents took place: five died in one, and 12 in another. That was our preliminary report.
I didn't meet the NHRC's team before they went to Doramba, because I wanted them to work independently. I just faxed them a synopsis of our report. The day after they released their report, I received its synopsis. I also received the photos the Maoists had taken.
It seems that the NHRC team went there, spent a night, then went on to exhume the bodies. They didn't use special forensics instruments. Bodies buried that long bloat, it is hard to see shots or wounds on them. Now we had just left the bodies lying there after the encounters [of 17 August]. God knows who had handled them, how many times they had been cleaned, and what else had been done to them before they had been buried.
The NHRC report also claims that the people had been shot in the head. Some had no skulls. Normally, there would be entry and exit wounds, or the bullets would be in the bodies. It would take special exploding bullets to make the entire skull shatter. We use only normal bullets.
Plus, if the allegations are true, the bodies would be piled in one exact spot, as they were brought up and shot, one by one. There would have been blood on them all. In the photos, there is all over the front of one of the girls. But the back of her clothes were clean.
The NHRC got these photos from the Maoists. Two days after the incident, the Maoists came, took photos, and buried the bodies. What exactly happened there we don't know. One of the bodies, of man of about 30, has no physical injuries. The cause of his death is unknown. The Maoists say we shot everyone, but this is the kind of thing we've found in the NHRC report. So the question is, in examining the bodies, what depth did the team go to?
On the AHRC's second investigation:
A second four-person investigation team of ours is now on this case. But even before this incident, Doramba was so terrorised that nobody dared speak openly. The Maoists have since killed a local nurse, and another businessman. Many villagers have been displaced.
Our second team has also been unable to go to the site. Now if I send them with 200 or 300 soldiers, how could the truth emerge? And I can't send them alone, since we're being targeted. The team is roving; its members go to the district, and if they need they can come to Kathmandu.
We will first question our side and try to find out the truth. If our personnel committed a crime, they would also be capable of lying about it. But then we're talking about 60, 70 troops who would have done this, that too in daylight. What kind of brazen, inept or idiot officer would tie people's hands and march them along the main trail, before villagers, and then claim it was an encounter?
The villagers will tell us what actually happened. But they can't speak now, they can't utter a single word against the Maoists. We will have to wait to discover the truth.
Krishna Jung Rayamajhi, a member of the NHRC investigation team, has since accused the army of willfully distorting the contents of the NHRC report while publicly questioning its quality.