18-24 January 2013 #639

Transitional injustice

Not investigating war crimes ensures that conflict wounds never heal, and violence will continue in a climate of impunity

Among the most iconic images of the Nepal conflict is the photograph of a woman embracing the body of her dead husband on a blood-stained battlefield littered with the bodies of policemen executed after capture. Grisly as this picture is, it is another photo from Dailekh of a young girl with tears streaming down her cheek (below, right) that is even more searing.

The girl is weeping silently as her mother tells a press conference in Kathmandu in 2004 about the disappearance of her father, radio journalist Dekendra Thapa (right). The girl’s story would have been forgotten had it not been for the personal crusade for justice of her mother Laxmi, Dailekh journalists, and human rights activists. Nearly seven years after the war ended, a courageous district police inspector doggedly pursued the case and finally arrested four of those involved in the torture and murder of the girl’s father. This case has become emblematic of the unpunished crimes committed by both sides during the conflict.

It was the summer of 2003, and the Maoists had laid siege to the district capital of Dailekh, cutting off its water supply. After nearly two months without water, a few journalists led by Dekendra dared to walk up to rebel-held territory to negotiate. The team was abducted and led away, some were released after two weeks but the Maoists detained Dekendra and put up posters in the district two months later detailing 10 reasons why they executed him. His body was not found.

Laxmi Thapa kept up the pressure, even while the conflict was raging, to find her husband and punish the guilty. The burial site was finally found, and forensic examination showed that Dekendra’s mouth was wide open when he died, his femur and elbow were broken, evidence of having being buried alive after severe torture.

The case filed with the police languished for eight years, no one dared investigate as the former rebels went on to win elections and come to power. Finally, it was Inspector Binod Sharma who had the courage to investigate and follow the trail to the house of Lachhiram Gharti, who confessed to being ordered to torture Dekendra. Gharti readily agreed to be arrested, saying he had been consumed by guilt and haunted by Dekendra’s ghost ever since he buried the journalist while his heart was still beating.


While Dekendra’s killers are willingly going to jail to atone for their crime, in faraway Kathmandu Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his crony Attorney General Mukti Pradhan have been trying their utmost to quash the investigation. They don’t want the masterminds of Dekendra Thapa’s torture and murder to be arrested, and the case to set a precedent against senior party leaders.

The Maoist-led coalition has an unwritten pact with state security not to pursue conflict-era atrocities, and to let bygones be bygones. This means there is little chance Army and Police involved in the Doramba massacre, the Kotbada killings, the torture and executions at Bhairabnath, and hundreds of cases of disappearances, rape, and extra-judicial killings will ever be tried. In fact, Bhattarai promoted the Army's head of the Bhairabnath Battalion, and the policeman involved in the death during the torture of Maoist journalist Krishna Sen. Since he came to power, Bhattarai has dismissed more than 100 cases involving 1,715 cadre accused of atrocities.

Prime Minister Bhattarai has argued that violence perpetrated during the conflict was political in nature and should be addressed by a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, his draft of the TRC Bill that is languishing on the president’s desk is a toothless farce. Bhattarai’s dirty tricks department is handled by his hand-picked Attorney General Pradhan, but the buck still stops at Baluwatar.

Bhattarai says digging up war crimes will endanger the peace process. Actually, not investigating them will ensure that the wounds of war never heal. The ensuing impunity has eliminated deterrence, and fostered an epidemic of crime involving robbery, rape, murder, and violence against women.

Lachhiram Gharti was stung by a guilty conscience, but the real masterminds of Dekendra Thapa’s murder have no such remorse. Top Maoists are terrified it is payback time for the terror they unleashed on the people.

Music video of Dekendra Thapa singing Karnali folk song produced by Dhruba Basnet