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Wartime ghosts haunt Nepal

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

Maoists threaten ‘stern action’ against those demanding justice against convicted war criminal

In the headline-grabbing change of government in Nepal this week, one aspect went almost unnoticed: the agreement on a Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Bill to address wartime atrocities.

President Ram Baran Yadav signed that ordinance on Thursday itself, away from the media glare and without fanfare. The Maoists had insisted that the TRC Bill would be a pre-condition for Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai stepping down to be replaced by Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi, who was sworn in also on Thursday.

Bal Krishna Dhungel (center) with Baburam Bhattarai at a program in Okhaldhunga two weeks ago. Photo:Nagarik

Bal Krishna Dhungel (centre) with Baburam Bhattarai at a program in Okhaldhunga two weeks ago. Photo:Nagarik

However, human rights activists say the new draft of the bill to set up a Truth and Reconciliation and Disappearances Commission still had loopholes to grant amnesty to war criminals. For example, the Commission is now empowered to investigate only heinous crimes against unarmed civilians. This puts extra-judicial killings and summary executions like Bhairabnath and Maina Sunwar outside the purview of the commission.

The Bill uses the broad term “systematic and targeted killings” to define what the Commission can prosecute in future, and it would be empowered to pardon the perpetrators of war crimes and those responsible for disappearances without consulting the families of the victims.

The Bhattarai government had, till the end of its tenure this week, fiercely resisted efforts to prosecute wartime atrocities committed by both the Maoists and state security, leading to allegations that it had made a deal with the Army and Police to let bygones be bygones. Far from prosecuting war criminals, Bhattarai promoted soldiers and police responsible for torture, disappearances and killings.

Bhattarai also demanded the release of Colonel Kumar Lama detained in UK in February for his involvement in a documented case of torture during the war. Bhattarai also instructed the police to stop investigating the killing of journalist Dekendra Thapa during the war even through the killers admitted to torturing and burying him alive. He stopped the promotion of the investigating officer, and ordered other police chiefs not to investigate similar war-time cases.

The Bill appears to have been pushed through hurriedly by the Maoists to demand extradition of Col Lama from UK ahead of his trial in June, as well as to forestall investigations of any other cases. In this, there appears to have been collusion of the Nepali Congress which was in power during the early part of the insurgency in the 1990s, and ordered brutal crackdowns against the Maoists in mid-western Nepal.

The other high-profile case is of Maoist spokesman and former minister Agni Sapkota, accused to killing a UML cadre in Dolakha during the war and former Maoist lawmaker Bal Krishna Dhungel convicted of the murder of Ujjan Shrestha in Okhaldhunga in 1998.

Paradoxically, Dhungel was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi, who has now been appointed the head of the election government. Dhungel has often been seen in the presence of high-ranking police officers, and last week shared a podium in Okhaldhunga with PM Bhattarai.

On Friday, the Maoists issued a statement signed by to senior leaders warning activists not to pursue wartime human rights violations and threatening “stern action” and unspecified “consequences” if the protests continued.

But activists continued the protests, staging a rally outside the prime minister’s residence in Baluwatar on Saturday morning demanding Dhungel’s imprisonment.

Kunda Dixit

Read also:

Lords of impunity

“I eliminated a spy”

‘Transitional injustice’

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