By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Bardiya, Nepal
A People's Court in progress
In a large warehouse in the humid flatlands of western Nepal, portraits of Lenin, Stalin and Mao adorn the walls, with communist slogans and a picture of the Nepalese Maoist leader, Prachanda.
Until recently this was a government cotton concern. Now it is used by the Maoists as a 'People's Court' to dispense justice.
The Maoists regard their court system as the heart of their 'People's Government', running in parallel with the official government through much of the country.
If current peace talks succeed, they may be asked to dismantle that government - but for the moment they are hanging on to it tenaciously.
In this court sit two judges and their clerks. On either side, on the floor, two opposing families. And witnesses.
On trial is a young man, 23-year-old Arjun, charged with having sex with a 15-year-old girl. Even if it is consensual, this counts as rape because she is under 16 - punishable, under Maoist law, by two years in a labour camp.
There's also a charge of assault laid against the girl's family, who beat up Arjun when they discovered the sexual relationship.
The floor is given to alternating witnesses from each side. The only 'lawyers' are the judges, who mediate.
Arjun looks frightened at being the centre of attention.
At the end of the day the judges draw up a document for both sides to sign.
The girl's family is told to keep the peace and, if they attack Arjun again, pay him compensation. As for the sex crime, judgment is deferred as the girl has not turned up for the day's proceedings.
Arjun presents his case before the court
In the dusk outside, villagers guard two young boys described as thieves, apparently to be tried soon. The older boy looks petrified.
The Maoist judges explain that they got the job after one or two days' training which, they insist, is sufficient since these cases are often a matter of common sense.
Justice - Maoist style - is quick and simple and, according to their legal code, aimed at reforming the criminal.
But its critics say it is not meticulous and intrudes into areas which have nothing to do with the law, such as sexual relations between adults and other family matters.
'Contrary to norms'
"The Maoist court frames charges, investigates and gives punishment. So we oppose it," says Subodh Pyakurel, who chairs the national human rights group, INSEC.
"This is contrary to judicial norms and civil rights. [They're] deciding whom you should marry or not, the business you should do or not."
He cites the case of a pregnant woman who was reportedly killed by Maoists shortly after remarrying - remarriage of widows is frowned upon by many traditional villagers in Nepal.
Paradoxically, though, some Maoist courts have won admirers for their treatment of social matters.
Kunda Dixit, chief editor of the Nepali Times newspaper, says the rebels have used their justice system to combat caste discrimination and secure equal rights for women, for instance reducing polygamy.
Villagers watch the proceedings of a People's Court
"Although the courts may be kangaroo-type, you see justice being done," he says.
"Suddenly there's a decision in favour of women, in favour of inheritance for daughters - that's extremely important.
"I think it's a big threat for the government - more of a threat than guns. Because you have a parallel system that can be more efficient about delivery of justice, which would actually undermine the state's legitimacy," he says.
The positive and negative aspects of this justice system can be seen a few kilometres apart.
In a scruffy location where goats scratch around outside the town of Kohalpur, the Maoists have set up a court in a derelict house. People have brought cases before the judge Anil Chhetri because, they say, it is better than the official system.
One, who has brought a land dispute, says government courts closed his case 35 days after he filed it, without a solution.
Arjun signs the agreement
Another is here to retrieve a debt. He alleges the government system is "run by nepotism", whereas the Maoist system charges him only about 1500 rupees ($20).
Even a police inspector is waiting at this Maoist court.
Most people say they are drawn to its cheap and speedy system of justice.
But in an impoverished village nearby, there are signs of injustice.
A family clusters round me to relate their ill-treatment by local Maoists.
The Maoists accused the family's grown-up son of stealing a goat and - according to the family - beat him and his parents for hours.
Injuries were visible on their backs and legs.
Beatings, even killings, in the name of the People's Courts are often reported and have been documented by the United Nations human rights office in Nepal.
In Kathmandu I asked Khim Lal Devkota, a Maoist legal expert who wrote the party's legal code, how they could justify beating people to death.
"Most of the reports are biased," he said. "If it is real it is not our policy."
He said irregularities may happen sometimes because despite the five-month ceasefire, Nepal is still "in a war". But Maoists doing such things would be investigated and punished, he added.
Capital punishment is not permitted under the Maoist legal code. Their favoured punishment is sending the guilty to the labour camp.
I have not been able to gain access to such camps, but am told they guard prisoners on land they have confiscated and make them do manual work for the Maoists.
The Maoist legal system is a mixed record of both popular laws and some which are outright brutal.
Elements of it are likely to be incorporated into Nepal's future judicial system.
Experts say the challenge is to make two parallel governments into one - keeping what is good from both and rejecting what is bad.