Nepal victims despair despite new government pledge over war crimes
It was soon before lunch on a January afternoon when rebels stormed a village school in the mountains of central Nepal, dragged headmaster Muktinath Adhikari from the classroom, tied him to a tree trunk, and shot him in the head.
Sixteen years on, the chilling photograph of the 45-year-old science teacher – slumped in front of the tree with his hands bound behind him – still haunts the Himalayan nation.
Captured by a local journalist and republished widely since, it is a painful reminder that, despite the end of the 10-year civil war between Maoist fighters and the government in 2006, rights abusers remain free.
And even as a new coalition government – promising peace and prosperity – takes power, victims’ families, like Adhikari’s son, hold out little hope of justice.
“The government has no good intentions and doesn’t want to address the plight of the victims,” said Suman Adhikari, founder of the Conflict Victims’ Common Platform, a network of support groups for people affected by the violence.
“They simply want this situation to linger and keep victims and their families hopeful.”
Survivors, victims’ families and rights groups say successive governments have hindered efforts to inquire about human rights violations committed during the war.
But a senior official from one of the main parties in the new government said any delays were not deliberate but were because of other priorities such as rebuilding the country after the huge earthquake in 2015.
“All other conditions of the peace deal with the Maoists have been completed,” Bishnu Rijal of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party said. “The new government will make required changes in the law to deliver justice to victims.”
Under the peace deal, both sides pledged to investigate and prosecute cases of human rights violations during the conflict.
In 2015, two war crimes commissions were established. Since then they have collected over 60,000 complaints of violations from victims’ families and survivors.
However, as the law stands, perpetrators have de facto amnesty because the commissions cannot demand they stand trial.
That is why, after more than a decade of peace, the handful of prosecutions so far are because of people taking their complaints to court.
Human rights groups say political parties have been deliberately delaying investigations by the commissions to protect their members. Those who might be investigated include some party leaders and members of the security forces.
Campaigners want Nepal to change its laws to empower the commissions to refer prosecutions to the courts.
Despite repeated Supreme Court rulings ordering that laws governing the commissions be amended in accordance with international standards, no action has been taken.
Victims and families had waited “far too long for answers”, said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director.
“Cynical government attempts such as extending the mandate without broader reform, as directed by the highest court, is a further slap in the face,” she said. “The two commissions have gathered a lot of documentation, but the authorities seem more committed to protecting perpetrators than ensuring justice in the process.”
Sworn in on February 15, Nepal’s new Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli – whose UML party is leading a coalition with former Maoist rebels – has vowed to deliver justice.
But analysts say Oli will not address victims’ grievances, as doing so could lead to the prosecution of coalition partners and the collapse of the government.
“The new government is unlikely to move fast to give justice to victims,” said Guna Raj Luitel, editor of Nagarik, a daily newspaper. “The Maoists are strong partners in the coalition and may hamper the effective functioning of the commissions.”
In the meantime, some survivors said they were losing hope.
“It remains to be seen how the new prime minister will prevail on his Maoist allies,” said Janak Bahadur Raut, who said he was blindfolded and tortured by the security forces during the conflict. “Nothing will happen to heal our wounds from the conflict under the existing laws that deny teeth to the commissions.”