27 May - 2 June 2016 #810

Guilty until proven not guilty

Pics: CIJ
Chitra Bahadur Majhi with sons Kamal and Surendra

Mukesh Pokharel, Centre for Investigative Journalism  

Sashi Kumar Thitung of Makwanpur sold fish and repaired bicycles. Four years ago, the police arrested him from his home for no reason at all. He was taken to court next day and charged with human trafficking. The Makwanpur District Court then slapped a 20 years sentence on Thitung. He is now in Bhimphedi Jail.

It was a case of mistaken identity based on a complaint lodged by Bindiya Tamang who was lured to India and sold to a brothel in Mumbai in 1989. Bindiya returned to Nepal after 22 years and filed a human trafficking case against her husband Sitaram Thing, and his friends Shyam Bahadur Bomjan and a man who went by name ‘Satya’.

Sitaram and Shyam Bahadur were arrested, after which police nabbed Thitung because his nickname was ‘Shakte’ and it sounded like ‘Satya’. Thitung, who can barely read or write, was made to sign a three page long statement prepared by the police. We revisited Thitung’s case files and even met the accused husband Sitaram Thing, who is also in the same jail. “I told the police that they had got the wrong guy,” he told us. “I don’t know Thitung, and he was not person who went to Mumbai with me to sell my wife. They didn’t listen and framed an innocent man.”

Sashi Kumar Thitung

Bindiya died six months after giving a statement to the court in June, 2012 in which she said Sashi Kumar Thitung was innocent and had no role in her being trafficked. Desperate, Thitung wrote to the Parliamentary Hearing Committee from  prison, pleading his innocence. He is now awaiting a Supreme Court verdict on his petition.

Attorney General Hari Phuyal admits Nepal’s criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. “There is something really wrong when most innocents languishing in prison are from poor and marginalised sections of society unable to prove their innocence.”

Three years ago, Chitra Bahadur Majhi and his son Kamal from Okhaldhunga, got into a scuffle with 60-year-old Gyan Bahadur Majhi from the same village. But Gyan Bahadur went missing later the same day. His wife filed a police complaint against Chitra Bahadur and his sons, Kaml and Surendra.

The government lawyer told them a disappearance charge wasn’t sufficient to lodge a case. So, Gyan Bahadur’s family went to the police claiming that the accused had publicly admitted to murdering him. Chitra Bahadur and his sons were arrested. 

But the supposedly-dead Gyan Bahadur returned to the village after five months. After spending 65 days in jail for something they’d never done, Chitra Bahadur and his sons were given a clean chit by the district court which also fined Gyan Bahadur’s nephew for filing a fabricated case.

Jugal Kewat

Jugal Kewat of Mahottari was arrested and sent to Jaleswar prison when the police mistook him for a person with the same name, who was involved in a robbery. When the family presented his citizenship certificate, it was revealed that Kewat was being charged for a crime committed 15 years before he was born. He was released after a week.

Arbindra Das Sharma is from Tamil Nadu and came to Nepal in the late 1970s to work in a garment company. On a chilly December morning, in 1997, he was arrested by police on charges of drug smuggling. Having spent 18 years behind bars, Arbindra was released on parole in 2014. He believes he was framed by an aquantaince, Aadam Khan, who was peddling drugs.  

“The police demanded Rs 50,000 to settle the case but I was innocent, so I refused,” Sharma recalls. But, the Kathmandu District Court slapped him with seven years in prison and a Rs 250,000 fine. Arbindra Sharma served his seven year jail term and an additional year for failing to deposit fined amount when then Supreme Court judge Khil Raj Regmi’s bench ruled that he would have to serve additional 15 years and pay a fine of Rs 500,000. “I regret coming to this country. I wasted best years of my life in prision,” says Sharma, brimming with tears.

In some cases, the police are also under social pressure to file cases, like in the case of Sarswati Subedi from Dhading district who worked at Krishna Prasai’s home in Anamnagar in Kathmandu. Post-mortem confirmed that Saraswati had committed suicide, but social pressure and public outrage forced police to file a complaint against Krishna Prasai and his family. Despite police investigation showing no foul play, then Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai ordered police to file a case. Prasai was later acquitted.

Pashupati Bhuj was a hotel owner in Butwal, who tried to mediate in a brawl outside nine years ago in which a man was killed. Police  arrested him after finding blood stain on his shirt. The Rupandehi District Court sentenced Bhuj to life in prison. Eight years later, the Supreme Court ruled him innocent and he was freed. But Bhuj says his life has been ruined.

Arbindra Das Sharma

“In cases like human trafficking, kidnapping, or drug offences, innocents getting tough sentences because police, government lawyers and judges do not take time to dig deeper,” admits a police official who has investigated several such cases.

Talking on the condition of anonymity, a judge admitted being swayed by public pressure in cases of sexual assaults and human trafficking: “Sometimes we are compelled to overlook the truth due to intense public pressure.”

(Additional reporting by Rabindra Upreti in Mahottari and Kumbharaj Rai in Okhaldhunga)

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