18-24 January 2013 #639

Skeletons in the closet

The framework of justice cannot be custom-made and tailored to serve the interests of the few
Anurag Acharya

The dilemma of post-conflict reconciliation is to balance society’s need to ensure justice while at the same time curbing retribution. In many post-war situations the delivery of justice is limited to avenging wrongdoings, without effectively addressing the structural roots of violence.

Seven years after the end of Nepal’s bloody insurgency which claimed 16,000 lives, a status quo media and civil society activists still give asymmetrical weightage to crimes committed by the Maoists, often obscuring the brutality of state security. While the media spotlight is on Dekendra Thapa who was tortured and buried alive by the Maoists in 2004, we must not forget the names of other journalists like Kanchan Priyadarshi, Dev Kumar Acharya, Krishna Sen, and Milan Nepali, who were killed by the state. When the framework of justice is custom made and tailored to serve the interests of the few, it loses its essence and stokes revenge.

To be sure, we shouldn’t wait indefinitely for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be formed to try war-era crimes, especially since the current draft of the bill makes it a rubber stamp mass-pardon body. Also, the prime minister is wrong to argue that probing human rights violations will hinder the peace process. Not only is that a politically incorrect thing to say, it is morally flawed as well.

But we have to be scrupulously even-handed in pursuing war crimes. While calling for the prosecution of Ujjan Shrestha and Arjun Lama, we must also investigate the cases of Sapana Gurung, Maina Sunuwar, the torture and executions at the infamous Bhairabnath and hundreds of other cases involving state security that are languishing in civilian courts.

The decision to set up the Truth and Reconciliation and Disappearance Commissions was part of an understanding between Girija Prasad Koirala and Pushpa Kamal Dahal who were both worried about skeletons in their own closets. As the leader of a party which was in power for the longest period during the conflict, and under whose watch Kilo Sierra II was launched, Koirala was acutely aware of his own culpability.

Similarly, although Dahal may not have pulled the trigger himself he did give the order to do so, and the chain of command led up to him. Many unspeakable atrocities were committed by his revolutionaries on innocent Nepalis and justified as an answer to the structural violence of the state.

The Koirala-Dahal pact sought to assuage the international community that transitional justice was being addressed domestically since the entire peace process was a homegrown exercise. In actual fact, it was a ruse to let their own fighters, as well as themselves, off the hook. This accommodation is still in effect, as is seen in the NC and UML’s unhappiness with the detention of Colonel Lama in the UK.

What is different about the Dekendra Thapa case is that the NC and UML, desperate to get the Bhattarai government to step down, have decided to politicise it by launching an agitation from Dailekh next month. This has already provoked the Maoists into launching a parallel protest to demand justice for state excesses during the war.

Every upright citizen of this country will, and should, support mobilisation against the Bhattarai government’s obstruction of a judicial probe into Dekendra Thapa’s case. But justice must be seen to be even-handed, and there must be as much outrage about the same prime minister’s promotion of Army officer Raju Basnet of Bhairabnath.

What makes politicians think they can get away with this is the state of impunity in the country. When massive kickbacks, payoffs, murders, protection rackets, extortion, murder, and rape go unpunished, anyone can get away with anything. Those entrusted with protecting citizens, prey on them. Law-makers turn law-breakers.

The greatest lesson Nepal can draw from the bloodshed of the decade long war is that it is cheaper in the long-term to address social injustice through politics rather than violence.

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