29 Apr - 5 May 2016 #806

Clampdown on dissent

The Commission that abuses its own authority
Tapan Bose
Kanak Mani Dixit is one of the most vocal dissident voices on Nepal. I have known him for more than ten years as a journalist, human rights defender, teacher and a builder of institutions.

He has never run away from his responsibilities as a concerned citizen and has spoken out on many occasions against violations of human rights, abuse of power and corruption. One wonders whether the arrest of Kanak is the signal for a new clampdown on dissident voices in Nepal under the new constitution.

Kanak’s arrest and the manner of his detention in a police lock-up in Kathmandu on allegation that he has amassed disproportionate wealth by misusing his position as the Chairman of Sajha Yatayat raises serious questions of abuse of authority by Nepal’s Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). This arrest is questionable particularly as the Supreme Court of Nepal on November 2015 had questioned the basis on which the accusations of financial irregularities were made against him.

This is not the first time that Kanak has been accused. In April 2014, a Maoist member of Nepal’s Parliament had accused Kanak of financial impropriety, and the reason was his campaign for the arrest and prosecution of the Maoists leaders who were involved in the abduction and killing of Krishna Prasad Adhikari in 2004.

Kanak Mani Dixit has been one of the most vocal critics of Lokman Singh Karki’s appointment to the post of Chairperson of CIAA by the Constitution Commission in 2013. Karki was Chief Secretary under the autocratic rule of King Gyanendra. The Rayamajhi Commission, set up to investigate the abuse of power during King Gyanendra’s autocratic rule, had accused Karki of using excessive force in suppressing the popular democratic movement in 2006.

It is unfortunate that Nepali political leaders did not support the demand for the cancellation of his appointment. Rather, it was with the support of political leaders that the person who tried to suppress the Second Democratic Movement became the chief ombudsman of Nepal.

Given the history of Kanak’s opposition to his appointment it is not unfair to suspect that the investigation against him is guided by Karki’s personal bias. The arrest on a Friday afternoon, when the office of CIAA and the courts were closing down for the weekend, suggests a deliberate intention to harass and intimidate. This was despite Kanak’s cooperation with the investigation by submitting a 13 page document listing his assets.

The CIAA has claimed that as per information available with the Commission, the listing did not include all the assets. It is not clear whether the assets that Kanak and his family had acquired before Kanak became the Chairperson of Sajha Yatayat were also being investigated.

When the new constitution was adopted by Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, some of us had pointed out that the new constitution has imposed vague and arbitrary limits on freedom rights. It is an irony that while declaring its commitment to ‘guaranteeing full freedom of the press’ the new Constitution has in reality imposed more restrictions than the previous two constitutions.

This constitution, unlike the 1990 constitution and the interim constitution of 2007, has empowered the government to enact laws to regulate radio, television and all digital and electronic means of communication. Article 19 (1) empowers the government to restrict press freedom on grounds of upholding territorial integrity, national unity, maintaining harmonious relations between federal units, and incitement to caste- and gender-based discrimination. While one may not disagree with the need for the imposition of reasonable restrictions the problem lies in the fact that the constitution has empowered the government to decide what undermines nationality, harmonious relations, public morality and good behaviour. The Constitution has also given the government enormous discretion in the matter of preventive detention, allowing it to hold anyone who may be an ‘immediate threat to the sovereignty and integrity of, or the law and order situation, in Nepal’.

Recently, the Prime Minister of Nepal rebuked a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for criticising Nepal during the Universal Periodic Review of Nepal’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council. It is unfortunate that Nepal’s human rights organisations and civil society groups have remained mostly silent on the arrest and the denial of Kanak’s detention. Recent events (the arrest of Kanak, the Prime Minister rebuking a member of the NHRC and the brutal repression of the Madhes movement) are indications of the weakening of Nepal’s democratic institutions. It is not the time to remain silent. It is time to raise more dissenting voices against abuse of power.

Tapan Bose is Secretary General, South Asia Forum for Human Rights

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