August 15, 2016
KATHMANDU, NEPAL — People who lived through the violent Maoist conflict that rocked Nepal from 1996 to 2006 say they fear there is a possibility that perpetrators of crimes, including murder, rape, torture and abduction, could go free.
Two major political parties ─ the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), now part of the recently created Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) ─ signed a nine-point agreement on May 5 that contains provisions for general amnesty for perpetrators.
The agreement isn’t binding, but the two groups have significant political power, and human rights advocates worry that they’ll force the plan into action.
That conflict ended when Nepal’s government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) signed a peace agreement on Nov. 21, 2006. Under that agreement, the government in 2014 created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons. (See our stories about how a former child soldier, an injured police officer and a woman who lost her father are dealing with the conflict’s aftermath.)
Many Nepalese say the commission isn’t working. In June 2014, a group of 234 people, including those who suffered in the conflict and their family members, filed a petition with the Supreme Court to make changes that would include expanding the definition for serious human rights violations, criminalizing torture, extending the time limits governing when cases can be filed and returning stolen property.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petition in February 2015.
But now the very fabric of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could fray, if the nine-point agreement is utilized.
The conflict left more than 11,000 people dead and more than 8,000 people disabled, according to a report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, published in October 2012.
Global Press Journal’s Yam Kumari Kandel spoke with people who were affected by the conflict’s violence, a human rights activist and the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to understand the tensions surrounding the transitional justice process under way in Nepal.
The wife: Purnimaya Lama
Tragedy struck on what should have been a joyful day for Purnimaya Lama and her family.
On April 29, 2005, her husband, Arjun Lama, then 48 years old, was inducted as the chairman of the management committee of Shree Krishna Higher Secondary School in their village in Kavrepalanchowk district.
During the ceremony, three men stormed the small hall and forced her husband to leave with them, Lama says. The men, two of whom she recognized as residents of her village, promised to bring him back after a few hours.
That was the last time that Purnimaya Lama saw her husband.
Yam Kurmari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Arjun Lama was a building contractor and respected member of their community, Purnimaya Lama says. When he was gone, she had no source of income. She was forced to live on savings and financial assistance from her neighbors and relatives.
“It became difficult at home to make ends meet,” she says. “My children were small, and I used to beg in the village just to get enough for us to eat.”
Lama says she searched for her husband in areas where she thought the Maoists might be holding him. When Maoist fighters came to her home to demand money and clothes, as they often did in villages near where the guerrilla groups were based, they assured her that they would send him home.
“My husband was innocent, and he had not done anything bad to anyone,” she says. “He had not stolen anything. He had not killed anybody. I felt they would release him after keeping him with them for a few days.”
But her husband was not returned, Lama says.
She received two letters, both with her husband’s signature and seemingly written by him, on May 31, 2005, and June 16, 2005. The letters assured her that he was safe. They asked her not to worry and promised that he would return after completing some “work” he had to do, Lama says.
The Maoists asked her to provide money for her husband’s expenses, Lama says, and used to send a messenger to pick up cash from her twice a month. She paid more than 450,000 rupees ($4,185) in total, Lama says. Some of the money came from her husband’s savings, and some of it was borrowed from neighbors.
On Jan. 6, 2006, Lama says, she received a letter informing her that her husband died in combat.
Lama says she does not accept this explanation.
“When we inquired from the cadres of the Maoists who work there, they told us that my husband was skinned, then buried alive,” Lama says. “The government has not handed any punishment to the perpetrators.”
Lama moved to Kathmandu in 2006, as her efforts to find the truth of her husband’s killing drew threats against her and her six children.
Lama is determined to seek justice for her husband’s death, but says she has no faith in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, as it’s commonly known in Nepal.
“I need either the proof of life of my husband, or his dead body,” she says.
The mother: Devi Sunuwar
Devi Sunuwar’s daughter, Maina, was 14 years old when she was abducted. Other news and human rights publications, including Global Press Journal, previously misreported her age. Her body was found about three years later. Maina was taken, along with her 10-year-old brother, on Feb. 17, 2004. The boy was released because he cried loudly when he was beaten by Nepal army personnel, Sunuwar says, but the family never saw Maina again.
Just four days before the children were abducted, Sunuwar’s 18-year-old cousin Rina Rasaili was raped and killed in her family’s garden by a group of army personnel, Sunuwar says.
Rasaili’s older sister was believed to have joined the Maoists, and Rasaili’s parents, brother and sister-in-law were forcibly held in their house by soldiers while others raped and killed her, then mutilated her body in the garden outside.
Yam Kurmari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
The next day, the Nepal army released a statement to the media saying that Rasaili was killed in a crossfire with Maoists in the area, Sunuwar says. Angered by this false information, Sunuwar quickly published a written description of the events, based on first-person accounts from Rasaili’s family, in local media.
Sunuwar believes her daughter’s abduction and murder were punishment for publicly speaking out against the Nepal army. Now, her story is a well-known case study in the failure of justice in Nepal.
In March 2007, during investigations and a court-martial hearing by the Nepal army, Sunuwar learned that Maina was buried near army barracks in Kavrepalanchowk district. The body was exhumed, and Maina’s identity was confirmed.
For Sunuwar, the grief continued. Her husband, Purna Bahadur Sunuwar, was found dead in a forest in November 2011. The cause of death was formally ruled as suicide, but Sunuwar believes her husband was abducted and killed to stop the family from pursuing punishment for Maina’s killers.
Sunuwar says the Nepal army gave her 25,000 rupees ($232) and the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction gave her 500,000 rupees ($4,650) as compensation for her daughter’s death.
“If people can get away with killing by paying 25,000 rupees, I would also give the compensation of 25,000 rupees after killing the killers,” she says angrily.
Sunuwar is determined to see Maina’s murderers punished, she says. Her daughter’s case is ongoing at the district court at Kavrepalanchowk.
The human rights advocate: Raju Chapagai
Reparations for people who suffered in the conflict are critical in order for Nepal to move forward, says Raju Chapagai, a constitutional and human rights lawyer.
“Sustainable peace is possible only after overcoming retribution through the process of healing among the victims,” Chapagai says.
Some current political leaders were also in power during the conflict, he says, and they seem to be fearful of the justice process.
Yam Kurmari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Raju Chapagai, a human rights activist, says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission must work to earn the trust of Nepalese people.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has not garnered the trust of the people who experienced violence and their families, Chapagai says.
“There are widespread allegations that the appointment of the commissioners was also manipulated by party leaders, with the intent to influence the investigation of the cases in their favor,” he says.
The legal system has been slow to respond and act, Chapagai says. He points to Maina Sunuwar’s case, in which four torturers were identified in a court-martial, but were released without serving time. One of the men was given a promotion and later sent to Chad as part of a United Nations mission. He was removed from the mission by the UN and sent back to Nepal in 2009 due to torture charges levied against him related to the case of Maina Sunuwar. (See details about her case above, in this story.)
He was taken in by the army upon arrival in Nepal, and has not been presented to court to face trial, even though there is an open arrest warrant for him.
But Chapagai says it’s possible that change is coming.
He cites the verdict of the Supreme Court in February 2015 that amnesty cannot be granted for serious crimes like rape, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killing and torture.
“The transitional justice process can come to a conclusion soon when political parties, without being ensnared in the potential consequence of the credible transitional justice process, wisely agree to allow evidence-based prosecution of those responsible for serious crimes,” Chapagai says.
Until then, both people who experienced abuse and their families will have to continue to demand justice.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairman: Surya Kiran Gurung
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will ensure that justice is served, says Surya Kiran Gurung, its chairman.
“The commission has already called for complaints from conflict victims,” he says. “Our investigations will be based on these complaints, and we will recommend action no matter which party it is, if there is evidence.”
Compensation will be given to people who suffered in the conflict and their families, he says.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has received more than 53,000 complaints since it began collecting them from the public on April 17. Preliminary investigations into complaints began on May 18, and the complaints registration process closed on Aug. 10, Gurung says.
Yam Kurmari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Since April 2015, teams from the commission have visited 73 districts in the country, Gurung says. Just two districts remain.
“Even though people did not trust the commission due to political reasons, it is positive that the number of complaints increased after the commission went to various districts to hear grievances directly from the conflict victims,” he says.
Gurung says the commission plans to pursue investigations into cases of extrajudicial killings, mental and physical torture inside prison, rape, enforced disappearance, confiscation of property and arbitrary detention.
The commission is serious about investigating allegations of human rights abuses, he says. But it will proceed with each case based on the wishes of the people in each case, and ensure safety and security to them during the investigation.
“The commission will be working to find out the basis and reason for the violations during the conflict and will recommend the penalizations,” Gurung says. “We will visit the places and interact with local civil society, elders and the intellectual circles of society during the investigation process.”
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali
Update: This story was updated on May 12, 2017 to correct a style error in the headline.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Maina Sunuwar’s age at the time of her abduction. She was 14 years old at the time. Her body was found three years later. Global Press Journal regrets this error.