Page last updated at 18:48 GMT, Sunday, 1 March 2009

Nepal's post-war culture of impunity

Parshuram Koirala surrounded by his family
The wife of Parshuram Koirala (here surrounded by his family) was abducted by Maoists who later said they had killed her

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Thousands of people in Nepal were killed, tortured or caused to disappear during the 10-year civil conflict which ended in 2006. Even since then, human rights violations have continued.

The perpetrators have come from the Nepal Army, the Maoist former rebels who now lead the government and, recently, from ethnic-based militant factions.

Yet the United Nations missions in the country say no-one has been properly brought to justice for such crimes.

I travelled to the badly affected district of Dhading in central Nepal.

The dust flew as our four-wheel drive climbed a long, rough track, far above the valley.

On a slab of stone beneath a spreading tree I talked with Parshuram Koirala about the trauma which began for him and his family five years ago. His four children watched, one daughter with a loaded basket on her head.

Abducted and killed

"My wife, Goma Koirala, was abducted by Maoists who accused her of passing on information to the Nepal Army," said the farmer.

Bhakta Bahadur Sapkota
We believe she was buried alive
Bhakta Bahadur Sapkota
talking about his dead daughter

"We still don't know what happened to her.

"I lay in front of the door and said, 'If you want to kill her, then kill her here. She is innocent'.

"Is this the law? How could they blame and kill her?"

Mr Koirala passed out for three hours when she was taken. He says Maoists kept visiting the village, later telling him they had killed his wife. But they have not guided him to her remains, which increases the family's pain.

A short, lurching drive along the hill, past banana trees and bougainvillea, took us to a family who have suffered at the hands of the other side.

Bhakta Bahadur Sapkota's face is care-worn. His brother was taken away by the army in 2003 on suspicion of Maoist involvement. Eight months later soldiers came to his father's house. Not finding Bhakta himself, they took Bhakta's 15-year-old daughter, Sarala, from her bed.

"They beat her and used force against her," said the widower, who has two other children.

"They tied her hands and took her away saying they would send her back later."

It took 18 months to find her remains. Assisted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, they established that Sarala was killed hours after being abducted.

Bhakta had to identify her body, and the evidence is horrific.

"We believe she was buried alive," he says.

Such abuses happened all over Nepal.

'Complete impunity'

Amid the urban chaos of Kathmandu stands the ornate Maharajganj Barracks.

Mandira Sharma
There is no interest in addressing the issue of accountability, impunity
Mandira Sharma
human rights lawyer

In late 2003 hundreds of men and women were held here on suspicion of Maoist links. For months, says the UN human rights office, they were blindfolded and tortured, forced to hear each other's screams. Forty-nine were taken away and never seen again.

Maoist actions were also brutal.

In Bardiya, in west Nepal, the family of 14-year-old Raju Tharu still mourn their son. The Maoists slit his throat, alleging he had spied for the government. In Chitwan in southern Nepal the then rebels planted a bomb under a bus, killing nearly 40 people.

The same UN office recently documented 170 cases of political disappearance in Bardiya, most caused by state forces.

Yet a human rights lawyer, Mandira Sharma, says there is complete impunity.

"We have brought a number of complaints against both sides," she says.

"Yet there are no investigations from the state. Those who were responsible for human rights violations are still in power. So there is no interest in addressing the issue of accountability, impunity."

'It was war'

Both of the formerly warring sides are defensive.

Dev Gurung
Our People's War was a political war
Dev Gurung
Maoist justice minister

Dev Gurung, a Maoist and now justice minister, told the BBC many of their perpetrations simply were not crimes.

"Our People's War was a political war," he said. "Its incidents can't be judged by courts. It should be judged through political consensus."

He said there were some instances of Maoists violating norms "without the direction of the party or its high command", and some such cases had been punished. The implication is that if the order did come from higher up, it was fine.

The Nepal Army also says it is capable of giving punishments itself.

Brig Gen Ramindra Chhetri
As far as the Nepalese Army is concerned, there was no policy-driven human rights violation
Brig Gen Ramindra Chhetri
Nepal Army spokesman

"During the last insurgency, some heinous acts of violation of human rights did occur from all the parties involved in the conflict," said its spokesman, Brig Gen Ramindra Chhetri.

"As far as the Nepalese Army is concerned, there was no policy-driven human rights violation. In the case of individual involvement, the guilty parties have been punished."

Gen Chhetri said at least 175 people had received penalties ranging from demotion to 10 years' imprisonment, but gave no details.

Campaigners for justice say criminal courts, not internal investigations, are needed.

"Not a single perpetrator of a major human rights violation, whether committed during the armed conflict or since its end, has been properly brought to justice," said Ian Martin, the recently departed special representative of the UN secretary general in Nepal.

There may be slow progress afoot. Public consultations are now being held about how to set up a commission on truth and reconciliation. The government is also trying to push through a law for a commission on political disappearances.

But international human rights groups have expressed some doubts as to whether the measures are thoroughly thought through.

Thirst for justice

In October the government dropped serious criminal charges against hundreds of political workers. The Maoists have also promoted a man for whom an arrest warrant was issued in connection with a murder inside a Maoist military camp last May.

The lawyer Mandira Sharma says that if the culture of impunity continues, the consequences will be grave.

"I think this peace process will be derailed, there is no doubt about this," she says.

"There will be a number of armed groups emerging because people really see that this a way of getting powers and you don't have to be accountable for the crimes that you commit. The law and order situation will be very very weak. Our country will be in anarchy."

Anarchy is already spreading as armed ethnic fronts emerge in some regions - while in the villages, families wait for justice.

"When my children come home, they ask whether their mother has cooked food," says Parshuram Koirala, six years after his wife vanished.

"If anyone opens the door at night, the children think it's their mother. I'm trying to console them by saying we will definitely get justice one day."

The pain is equal for Bhakta Sapkota, father of the murdered Sarala.

"She was just the age of studying, eating, playing," he mourns. "She was taken inhumanly at night and tortured - and buried in the mud.

"It has created an unbearable wound in my heart. Five or six times a day, I imagine I see her."

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