Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

NEPAL: Revolutionary Politics, Feudal Justice

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Jan 19 2007 (IPS) - While former Maoist outlaws have traded battle fatigues for grey suits and seats in Parliament, torture victim Pradesh Bahadur Bista is making the rounds of hospitals for proof that his chronic pains were caused by daily torture during 100 days of illegal detention by soldiers of the Nepali Army.

A lot has changed in the ‘new Nepal’ that dawned Apr. 25, 2006, the day after King Gyanendra relented in the face of hundreds of thousands of chanting protesters and recalled Parliament – but a lot has not.

“I don’t expect to get compensation for this but I want to punish the perpetrators, who deny doing this to me,” says Bista, who was seized from home by plainclothes men as a suspected Maoist on Sep. 10, 2003. For the next 100 days he was held in the army’s infamous Maharajgung Barracks in the capital Kathmandu, home to the Bhairav Nath Battalion, and tortured almost daily. “I want to see that battalion disbanded,” he adds in an interview.

In two weeks Bista will make his seventh appearance in court to try to set that process in motion. Since 2002, just six victims of torture by army or police have been awarded compensation, according to NGO Advocacy Forum, which is assisting Bista.

“Breaking the climate of impunity in Nepal remains the single most difficult human rights challenge,” wrote the United Nations high commissioner for human rights in her annual report in October. Louise Arbour arrived in Kathmandu on Friday for a six-day visit to assess the rights landscape since Maoist and government leaders signed a peace deal in November, ending a 10-year insurgency that left more than 13,000 people dead.

It is estimated that tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people fled their homes after threats from the rebels or government security forces during the decade; no one knows how many were tortured or ‘disappeared’ – and few people in power seem prepared to find out.

“There are few signs of the government actively taking steps to effectively end impunity – institutions haven’t been reformed and there is no indication of a change of culture as regards accountability,” says Sandra Beidas, chief of protection at the human rights commissioner’s Nepal office.

In May her office released a report of its investigation into charges of arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances in 2003-2004 at Bhairav Nath. “Most of the hundreds of individuals who were arrested by the (Army) in 2003 and detained for varying periods in Maharajgunj barracks were subjected to severe and prolonged ill-treatment and torture,” it says.

“At least 49 persons, and probably a significantly higher number, remain disappeared. National and international appeals for information and clarification were ignored. Detainees were hidden from inspection,” adds the report.

In October, the Secretary of the Minister of Defence told a parliamentary committee the UN report was based on “fallacious accusations”. Two of the 49 people named in the UN report had died and 10 were released to their families, he added, but was silent on the 37 others.

Last week the Supreme Court ordered a taskforce probing the disappearances of four people to expand its scope to include the 49 in the report. “It’s an important step in the context of almost total impunity but much much more needs to be done,” Beidas told IPS. “There are many more human rights abuses that occurred in the course of the conflict and outside the conflict.”

On Friday, Bista was at training workshop in the capital learning about the security of human rights defenders, one of 18 people nominated from victims’ rights group that Advocacy Forum has helped establish. “Our main goal is to publicise our painful experiences for all Nepalis to see,” said Bista, a small, soft-spoken, middle-aged man.

“We also want justice from the government, including compensation for those who are still having health problems…I still have pains in my chest where the soldiers kicked and punched me,” he added.

Promises of human rights protection figure prominently in many of the agreements that the government and Maoists signed en route to November’s final peace deal. But often they lack the substance needed to fulfil such pledges, according to the UN rights office, while the new Army Act actually makes military courts responsible for torture and disappearance cases. “That’s one of our big concerns,” said Beidas.

Other worrying signs have emerged about the government’s commitment to ending impunity for rights violations. A commission established to probe those responsible for the deaths of protesters in April’s ‘people’s movement’ in November named 202 people who should be prosecuted, including King Gyanendra, then government ministers and security chiefs. But it has yet to be made public.

Human rights NGOs have been leading a campaign to pressure the government to sign the treaty that would bind it to the International Criminal Court, whose mandate is to investigate allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity. Parliament in July directed the government to ratify the Rome Statute but it only set up a taskforce, which submitted its report one month ago.

Many activists are looking to a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission, promised in November’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement, as an essential step to finally emptying the skeletons in the country’s human rights closet. “It can be a crucial step along this process”, if done right, said Beidas. That means its mandate must be decided in consultation with victims and their relatives, and its members must be credible and independent.

“But truth commissions themselves cannot substitute for prosecutions of serious human rights violations,” she added.

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