15-21 April 2016 #804

State of Impunity

Letting war criminals go free erodes the rule of law, sends the message that violence is the answer and no one has to pay for crimes


The conflict in Nepal lasted ten years, and it has now been over for just as long. This week marks a decade since the climax of the pro-democracy movement that lead to the ceasefire. What the Maoists failed to achieve with bloodshed was attained in 19 days of largely peaceful street protests ten years ago this week. At midnight on 24 April 2006, after much vacillation, King Gyanendra restored Parliament. It represented a moral victory for peaceful political struggle, proving it to be more effective than using violence as a political weapon.

The last ten years of the peace process had its high points: no one could have predicted that Nepal today would have women in the posts of President, Parliament Speaker and Chief Justice. Or that we would have a former Maoist guerrilla commander serving as Vice-President. Rebel combatants were demobilised, some 1,600 guerrillas joined the national army and some will soon serve as UN peacekeepers. Despite official apathy, threats and intimidation, a few of Nepal’s human rights activists have doggedly pursued truth and justice on behalf of victims and relatives.

However, struggling for democracy seemed easier than nurturing it. The end of the war did not signal an end to violence. For Nepalis yearning for genuine peace and justice, the euphoria of 2006 has long since evaporated. As Seulki Lee points out in her review on page 14-15, in terms of transitional justice the peace process has been an abject failure. War crimes and murders perpetrated during the war have been wholly unaddressed.

One such transgression was committed by Bal Krishna Dhungel, who killed Ujjain Shrestha in Okhaldhunga in 1998 over a family dispute. He was convicted by the Supreme Court and served time in prison before being freed by a Maoist-led government in 2010. Agni Sapkota, the accused in the murder of Arjun Lama in 2005, is now Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, and faced no consequences as a result of his alleged crime.

There are many other equally notorious cases, like that of Dekendra Thapa, the Dailekh radio journalist who was disappeared, tortured and buried alive by the Maoists in 2005. Or the case of Maina Sunar, the 14-year-old who was raped and murdered by soldiers from the Panchkhal Base in 2004. Dozens were tortured and executed at the infamous Bhairabnath Battalion in the heart of Kathmandu.

Perhaps the most egregious case was the murder by the Maoists of teenage student, Krishna Adhikari in Chitwan in 2004. The boy’s parents, Nanda Prasad and Ganga Maya, maintained that the murder was over a land dispute, and pursued justice using the limited avenue open to them: through a prolonged hunger strike until Nanda Prasad died in 2014. Ganga Maya is in critical condition this week in hospital after continuing her fast.

The government has benefited from the public’s reluctance to revisit the violence inflicted during the conflict. The international community, which was once so vociferous on transitional justice, has suddenly gone quiet. The UN is now mostly busy ostensibly fulfilling its mandate by holding seminars like a recent one on ‘unofficial truth-telling’ — a thinly-veiled euphemism clearly intended to let the government off the hook.

Nepal’s conflict ended without a victor or vanquished. The former enemies are now the state. Neither they, nor the police, nor Nepal Army generals or former guerrilla commanders, want to rake up wartime atrocities. They have colluded to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well as a Commission on Enforced Disappearances, both of which can offer amnesty to those found guilty. Most human rights activists have been co-opted or silenced. The Prime Minister last week summoned members of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and bluntly told them to toe his line.

This current state of impunity will further erode the rule of law, and send the message that violence is the solution and there is no price to pay for wartime crimes. Just because the people do not expect justice to be served by the state does not mean that they do not hope fervently for it.

To uphold the rule of law, the NHRC and the two commissions must try iconic cases that epitomise the cruelty inflicted during the war, like the ones involving Maina Sunar, Ujjain Shrestha, Arjun Lama or Krishna Adhikari where there is enough evidence and perpetrators are known. Only then will the state be able to send the message that impunity will no longer be condoned.

Read also:

Justice waiting, Bidushi Dhungana

"How many times do we need to share our story?", Seulki Lee

The torturous road to peace, Yubaraj Shrestha

Statute of denial, Mallika Aryal

Remembering Maina

Children of war, Kunda Dixit