Nepali war victims' long fight for justice

Image caption,
Under the shadow of Everest victims seek justice for brutal war crimes

Why are Nepalis still waiting for justice, more than six years after the end of their country's brutal civil war? Joanna Jolly finds out why the scars from the conflict are still raw despite attempts by both sides to bury the past.

Purnimaya Lama would like to know what happened to her husband, Arjun.

Eight years ago he was a prosperous businessman and a respected member of his community in the hills outside Kathmandu.

But one day, a group of Maoists arrived to take him away.

"I have no idea why he was taken," says the 49-year-old mother of six.

"He had good relations with everyone in the village."

Image caption,
Purnimaya Lama holds up a picture of her husband Arjun who was abducted by Maoist rebels

Arjun's abduction happened during the height of Nepal's 10-year civil war, which started in 1996 when Maoist rebels began attacking the state security forces.

Purnimaya waited years to find out news of Arjun. Then she heard a rumour that he may have been killed.

"I demanded to know why the Maoists had killed my husband and I also demanded that they show me the body of my dead husband," she says.

"But up to now, nothing has happened."


Purnimaya's story is typical of many of those that emerged from Nepal's brutal conflict.

The Maoists took up arms because, they said, they were fighting for equality. Their aim was to overthrow Nepal's ancient hierarchical and caste-based society.

But like many wars, the conflict also became a cover for the settling of personal grudges, for the theft of money and property and sometimes, for horrific crimes.

When Nepal's leaders signed a peace deal in November 2006, they promised to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the killings and disappearances of more than 17,000 people during the war.

They pledged to respect human rights, to uphold international human rights laws and civil liberties.

But that was more than six years ago, and nothing's happened.

Atrocities took place on both sides of the conflict. The United Nations estimate that state security forces were responsible for 70% of the crimes, Maoist rebels the rest.

One crime that has come to symbolise the horror of wartime abuse is the water-torture, electrocution and killing of the 15-year-old schoolgirl Maina Sunuwar by soldiers.

Media caption,
Nepal war victims fight for justice

The officers involved were later disciplined in a court martial, but were found guilty only of negligence and of not disposing of Maina's body correctly.

Often abduction, murder and torture were disguised as deaths that occurred because of clashes between the two sides - or "encounters" as these became known.

At one point, the Maoists told Purnimaya her husband had been killed in one-such encounter - in a Nepal Army air strike.

She later found out from villagers that he may have been forced to dig his own grave and that he had probably been buried alive.

"I heard he might have been buried in a certain area," she says.

"I did try to go there, but the Maoists had a stronghold there, so I feared losing my life if I went."

Nepali human rights lawyers have been fighting for cases like Purnimaya's to be prosecuted in civilian courts.

A number of arrest warrants have been issued, both by Nepal's district and Supreme Courts.

But these have not been followed up.

In many cases, those who have been identified as the perpetrators of serious crimes have gone on to be promoted - both in the army and in the Maoist party.

"Historically we've had problems in making people accountable, especially those who are in power," says human rights lawyer, Mandira Sharma.

"Earlier on we had the monarchy and they were always above the law, no one could challenge them.

"Now it's politicians - those who are in power. They think they are immune," she says.

To date, the only senior commander from either side to be charged for a serious crime relating to the conflict is Colonel Kumar Lama.

Earlier this year he was arrested in Britain and faces two counts of torture under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

His trial is expected to begin in June.


Nepal's former Maoist Prime Minister, Babarum Bhattarai, says his country is committed to setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to respecting the rule of law.

"We are not for impunity. All cases should be looked into by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and dealt with," he says.

But he adds that fighting between political parties has slowed down the process. And Nepal's Maoist revolution is still not over.

"This is an unfortunate issue, but in every revolution we have to make certain sacrifices," he says.

It seems the sacrifices demanded by the leaders are being made by ordinary Nepalis.

These days, Purnimaya Lama often joins what's become a permanent protest outside the prime minister's residence demanding justice.

Image caption,
Protestors demand justice in Kathmandu

To the chants of "where is democracy, where is justice", demonstrators say they're determined to keep up pressure on Nepal's leaders to fulfil their promise to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In Purnimaya's case, an arrest warrant has been issued for the Maoist leader commanding the district where her husband Arjun was taken.

But this man, Agni Sapkota, remains free. And more than free - he is now a member of parliament and the Maoist party spokesman. But he maintains his innocence.

"I think each side is trying to protect their own," says Kathmandu newspaper editor, Kunda Dixit.

"There's this very cosy relationship between the former enemies, the state security forces on one side and the Maoists and their army on the other.

"So in a sense, it's you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

Many Nepalis fear that if this relationship continues and if the issue of justice is swept under the carpet, Nepal's fragile peace could be in danger.

"What I've been struck by is the lack of the sense of revenge here," says Kunda Dixit.

"But that doesn't mean that people's patience is unlimited. I think they'll come to a point where the injustice will be so glaring, so blatant to the families of the victims, that they will do something."

Listen to the full report on Thursday, 14 March on Assignment on the BBC World Service.

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