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Slow arc of justice
Publication Date : 09-01-2013
Every time the police and the courts start taking action on conflict-era crimes, the inevitable cry that arises from certain quarters—especially from the Maoists and the Nepal Army—is that it’s a conspiracy to thwart the peace process. They are adamant that conflict-era cases should be dealt with by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as was promised in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In the absence of political will to set up a robust TRC over the years, the position—that conflict-era crimes should be dealt with only after a transitional justice mechanism is set up and not earlier—appears increasingly as a ruse to delay and deny justice to victims of human rights abuses. A further point that needs to be made is that even with a TRC in place, the task of investigating and prosecuting crimes still rests with state bodies, such as the police and the judiciary. Therefore, the earlier these institutions become capable of prosecuting those responsible for conflict-era crimes, the more capable, and thus credible, will the TRC become.
After six long years of paralysis on prosecuting war-time crimes and ending impunity, it is still not clear that state bodies are willing to act on their promises. One good news for ending impunity in the country are the recent developments in the case of Dekendra Raj Thapa, a journalist abducted, tortured and slain by then CPN (Maoist) workers in 2004. Thapa, a district correspondent in Dailekh for Radio Nepal, was abducted by the Maoists on June 25 while returning from an assignment. He was then tortured, hung upside down and beaten with sticks. For years, Thapa’s family sought his body, refusing to perform his funeral rites, though they were told he was killed. It was only on July 29, 2008 that a team from the National Human Rights Commission exhumed Thapa’s body and identified the skeleton. Hopes for justice for Dekendra’s family were dashed for four long years. Earlier this month, Thapa’s wife, Laxmi, moved the Appellate Court in Surkhet, demanding the arrest of the perpetrators, compelling the police to take action. According to one of his killers, Laxmiram Ghartimagar, who has recently been arrested, Thapa was probably still alive when he was buried on the grounds of the Nepal National Primary School of Dwari on Aug 10, 2004.
Of the five people that have been arrested, four are district-level leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist and one is a member of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Predictably, both parties have opposed the arrests, claiming the case should be dealt with by the TRC. Thapa is only one of the thousands of civilians disappeared, tortured or killed by both rebels and state forces during the Maoist insurgency, and a transitional justice mechanism is needed to address all of them. This does not mean halting prosecutions on individual cases emblematic of abuse, including that of Maina Sunuwar, a 15-year-old girl tortured and killed by the then Royal Nepal Army; Arjun Lama, abducted and murdered in 2005 allegedly at the behest of Maoist leader Agni Sapkota; and the five Janakpur youths disappeared and killed during the insurgency. Police should take proactive measures to investigate and prosecute the guilty as soon as possible. This is not to deny the importance of a strong TRC but Nepal’s justice-hungry citizens cannot wait forever for parties to agree on the modalities of one.