(New York) – The Nepal government should act on the National Human Rights Commission’s findings to ensure accountability for grave human rights abuses by security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should stop reversing the commission’s findings and ensure its independence.
There are mounting allegations of extrajudicial executions and deaths in custody resulting from torture, yet the Nepal authorities resist conducting credible investigations. Successful prosecutions for abuses by the security forces are practically unheard of.
“Nepal is still trying to grapple with delivering justice for unlawful killings during the armed conflict, but instead of keeping its promise of reforms and pledges against repeat offenses, the abuses continue to mount,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government uses rule of law rhetoric to appeal to foreign diplomats and donors but actually fosters a culture of impunity.”
Police in Sarlahi district killed Kumar Paudel, 47, a member of a Maoist splinter group, on June 20, 2019, in what officers claimed was an exchange of fire with members of a proscribed armed group. In October, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said it had found that Paudel was killed in custody and that the police officers responsible should be prosecuted, but the Home Ministry has asked the commission to review its recommendation.
In July and August, after two men died in separate incidents, independent activists and the NHRC called for investigations into allegations that they died after being abused in the custody of security forces. Both men – Raj Kumar Chepang, 24, who was detained by the army, and Bijay Mahara, 19, who was detained by the police – were members of marginalized communities, and there are concerns that the cases will not be credibly investigated.
On October 28, 2019, three United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the government concerning the killing of Kumar Paudel as well as two others, the alleged extrajudicial execution of Dipendra Chaudhary on January 23, 2019, and the fatal shooting of Saroj Narayan Singh, an unarmed protester, on June 29, 2019. In all three cases the police refused to register first information reports (FIRs), the document used to initiate a criminal investigation. The government responded to the special rapporteurs on January 3, claiming that “It is explicit and obvious that extrajudicial killing in any form and manner is categorically outlawed by Nepal.”
Responding to the government’s request to the NHRC to reconsider its recommendation in the case of Kumar Paudel, secretary and spokesperson for the commission, Bed Bhattarai, told Human Rights Watch: “The Home Ministry is asking the NHRC to rethink the recommendation of the commission but actually we have clear evidence…. The NHRC has investigated and concluded it was an extrajudicial killing.” He said the victim’s body also showed evidence of other injuries, including a broken hand.
Following the death of Bijay Mahara (also known as Bijay Ram Chamar), 19, a member of the Dalit community, on August 26, the attorney general of Province 2 has recommended a police investigation, three officers have been suspended, and the NHRC has begun its own investigation. Police initially claimed that he had died of kidney failure, but Mahara recorded a video in hospital before he died alleging that he had been severely abused in detention.
Mahara’s family say he was in good health at the time of his arrest on August 16. Doctors found injuries on his hands and back. Activists working on the case told Human Rights Watch that, as of September 1, the police had refused to receive a first information report, but that Rs 500,000 (US$ 4,300) in compensation had been announced by the provincial government.
Research by the Nepali human rights organization Advocacy Forum in 2019 found that torture is widespread in police custody in Nepal, and members of the Dalit – formerly so-called untouchable – community are far more likely to be tortured than members of so called “upper” castes. Torture became a crime under Nepali law for the first time in 2018, but there have been no successful prosecutions.
According to the NHRC, the government has fully implemented only about 12 percent of 810 commission recommendations in the eight years to 2019. Most of those implemented involved paying compensation or relief, rather than legal action against individuals or groups. The government has frequently paid compensation to the families of victims of alleged extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths allegedly resulting from torture, without taking action against alleged perpetrators.
The terms of the current members of the NHRC expire in October. It is essential that the new commissioners are well qualified and independent, and appointed through a credible and timely process, Human Rights Watch said.
Nepal has a longstanding culture of impunity. A commitment in the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to address abuses committed during the 1996-2006 conflict between government forces and Maoist former-insurgents, who now form part of the government, has been repeatedly stalled.
The government has also failed to act against security officers responsible for using excessive and indiscriminate force against unarmed protestors in the southern Terai region in 2015. Violent protests and a security forces crackdown led to the death of 66 people, including 10 police officers.
Human Rights Watch found that some victims were bystanders and children shot dead by the police, or were taken under control by the police before they were killed. The government set up a commission chaired by a retired supreme court justice, Girish Chandra Lal, to investigate the violence, which submitted its report in 2017. Despite promises to release the report, the government has not done so.
Security forces did not fully cooperate with the Lal Commission. However, based on media articles describing leaked material, the commission found that the use of lethal force against protesters in the eastern Terai region could not have occurred “without the direction and orders from the local administration.” The commission said that the killing of bystanders and protesters involved excessive use of police force.
For many years, Nepal’s international donors have funded programs in Nepal intended to support respect for human rights, police reform, access to justice, and respect for the rule of law. The UK’s Integrated Programme for Strengthening Security and Justice, which began in 2014 and includes substantial financial aid to the police, aims to promote “citizen-friendly policing and human rights, and local accountability.” The United States currently has a program “promoting human rights and democratic policing,” while Norway is funding a project through the UN Development Program that aims at “enhancing the access to justice.”
While it is welcome that international donors are working to improve the rule of law in Nepal, these efforts have little meaning if the agencies that receive donor funds enjoy or support flagrant impunity for alleged extrajudicial killings, Human Rights Watch said.
Donors, including the UK government, which gives funding to the Nepal police, should publicly and privately insist that Nepal meets its basic obligation to investigate and prosecute grave violations, Human Rights Watch said. They should also ask the government to release the Lal Commission report.
In its successful bid to be elected to the current United Nations Human Rights Council, Nepal claimed in 2017 to respect the authority and independence of the NHRC and the judiciary, and said it will be pursuing a credible transitional justice process for conflict era abuses. The government has failed on all three.
It has introduced legislation that six UN special rapporteurs have warned risks “severely undermining the NHRC’s authority, effectiveness and independence.” The government has failed to comply with repeated Supreme Court rulings since 2015 to amend the transitional justice law to meet international standards, and instead has ignored numerous court orders relating to conflict-era police investigations and prosecutions.
“Nepal’s authorities love to speak of their commitment to human rights and good governance, but their actions are at odds with those standards,” Ganguly said. “Diplomats and donors should insist on measurable progress on rights protections if they hope to see their financial and technical support bear meaningful results.”