(New York) - Three Nepalese army officers found guilty of torturing and murdering a 15-year-old girl will most likely not serve a single day in jail following a court martial ruling that highlights the impunity of the Royal Nepal Army, Human Rights Watch said today.
On Tuesday, a court martial ruled that Colonel Bobby Khatri, Captain Sunil Adhikari and Captain Amit Pun were directly responsible for killing Maina Sunuwar after severely torturing her. She had been abducted on February 17, 2004, by state security forces, who initially did not provide any information on her whereabouts or even admit they were holding her.
The three officers received sentences of six months in jail and temporary suspension of promotion, but they are unlikely to serve any actual time in prison, as they were found to have served their sentences by being consigned to the barracks. The officers were also ordered to pay some compensation to the family from their own funds.
“This ruling allows officers convicted for torturing and murdering a 15-year-old girl to avoid serving even a single day in jail,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “This tells soldiers in the Nepalese army that they won’t risk punishment if they continue to abuse civilians.”
Over the past two years, the Nepalese army has been responsible for the largest number of reported forced disappearances in the world. For nine years, the army has been engaged in a brutal civil war against Maoist insurgents, who have been responsible for grave abuses against civilians.
In the case of Maina Sunuwar, the Nepalese army had denied having her in their custody although several witnesses saw her being taken from her home by government security forces. Her father, who was present at that time, was told to collect his daughter from army barracks the next morning. But when the family went searching for Maina, the army refused to acknowledge holding her.
Human Rights Watch’s October 2004 report on Nepal, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, documented the circumstances surrounding Maina’s disappearance and the army’s disavowal of holding her:
“[Maina’s] mother, Devi Sunuwar, was a witness to an extrajudicial execution by government forces and gave statements to journalists and human rights workers. Within days, Maina was accused of providing food to Maoists and was taken away by security forces. Since Devi was not home at that time, the soldiers left a message with her husband, asking Devi to come to the barracks to secure the release of their child. But when she went to the army, she was told that her daughter was not in custody.
When Human Rights Watch asked army spokesperson Col. Deepak Gurung about Maina’s whereabouts, he insisted that an inquiry had been ordered and that the girl was not in army custody. He went on to claim that Devi Sunuwar was a liar who had lied about her niece’s execution and was now lying about her daughter’s disappearance.”
Following intense international and local criticism, the army eventually admitted that they had arrested Maina and pledged to investigate the case. Maina’s family received persistent reports that she had been killed shortly after her arrest, but they received no official confirmation, and Maina’s body has never been produced.
“Maina was punished because her family dared to challenge the army’s impunity,” Adams said. “While her family has suffered horribly, the perpetrators are getting away without any real punishment. This verdict confirms that the Nepalese army is simply not serious about respecting the most basic human rights.”
Maina’s case proceeded despite the army’s intimidation of witnesses as well as several human rights workers who had pursued justice in this case. Some of the human rights monitors who worked on this case have had to go into hiding, while others have had to flee the country.
The Royal Nepal Army’s well-documented record of abuses has led to international condemnation and the suspension of military aid from India, the United States and the United Kingdom. To counter international pressure, the army has instituted some cosmetic gestures such as initiating courts martial and creating a unit dedicated to addressing the military’s poor human rights record. In practice, however, government security forces operate without any accountability.
The army has conducted public investigations into only a few cases of abuses committed by troops. On January 31, the army announced the result of a high-profile court martial related to the execution of 17 suspected Maoist insurgents who had surrendered near the village of Doramba. The result was a two-year jail term for the army officer convicted of responsibility for the extrajudicial executions. However, this was the only prison sentence that has been handed down for human rights abuses committed by a senior army officer.