(New York) - The government’s failure to bring to justice armed groups and security forces responsible for a string of recent violent acts in Nepal does nothing to prevent further bloodshed, Human Rights Watch said today. After a decade of armed conflict in which both Maoists and security forces conducted abductions, torture, and killings with impunity, such lawless behavior has become the norm.

There have been widespread protests in Nepal after the May 8, 2008 killing of businessman Ram Hari Shrestha. Members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) abducted Shrestha on April 27 and took him to the Shakti Khor barracks (UN-run military quarters) in Chitwan District, where he was tortured, leading to his eventual death. The PLA is the armed wing of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and it has acknowledged its involvement in Shrestha’s killing. A PLA commander had accused Shrestha of theft.

“Shrestha’s death reflects the culture of violence and impunity that prevails in Nepal today,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By administering punishment instead of seeking police assistance like ordinary citizens, the PLA has shown it believes it’s above the law.”

Of urgent concern is the involvement of the Maoist combatants who are supposed to be confined to military quarters or “cantonment sites.” Since a 2006 peace agreement, members of Maoist armed groups have been restricted to barracks such as the one where Shrestha was taken, and their weapons placed in the custody of the United Nations Mission in Nepal. The UN mission has described the killing as a ‘serious breach’ of commitments made by the Maoists.

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won most seats in the recently concluded constituent assembly elections and is expected to lead Nepal’s new government. Meanwhile, the present government has formed a three-member commission to investigate the killing.

“While we welcome the government’s action to set up an inquiry, what is needed is a full police investigation and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice,” said Ganguly. “The legacy of uncontrolled violence without punishment cannot continue, and the new government should send a strong message that it is committed to breaking with the past and will strictly enforce the law.”

Nepal has a long history of violence. A decade-long Maoist insurgency claimed more than 13,000 lives, with the police, the army, and the Maoists all responsible for numerous human rights abuses during the conflict. In November 2006, Nepal’s coalition government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed a peace agreement to end the fighting and to participate in elections to create a constituent assembly that would rewrite the country’s constitution. Elections were held on April 10, 2008, but there were a number of attacks and killings of political rivals during the campaign.

While the election was widely regarded as credible, reports of political violence and intimidation continue, with the Young Communist League (YCL), the Maoists’ youth wing, frequently implicated. The Communist Party of Nepal - United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) reported that the villagers of Sundarpur-3 in Morang district complained to the police and accused two YCL members of abducting and assaulting UML supporters, Dipak Tamang and Anil Biswokarma, during the April elections. According to media reports, the police failed to intervene.

On May 6, media reports alleged that Maoists assaulted CPN-UML activists Bhabindra Rai and Shanker Adhikari of Siddhakali-6 in Sankhuwasabha district. They were apparently attacked for their political activities during the Constituent Assembly election. The Nepali Congress has also accused the YCL of murdering a Nepali Congress supporter in Kalikot district on May 16.

Prior to the election on April 7, members of the paramilitary Armed Police Force, deployed for the security of Khum Bahadur Khadka, a former minister and Nepali Congress candidate for Dang constituency-1, killed seven Maoists. Conflicting accounts of the incident allege the Maoists opened fire or incited the security forces to open fire, or that the security forces ambushed the unarmed Maoists. Reports to Human Rights Watch suggest that the Maoists did not open fire and that the Armed Police Force personnel used excessive force. The former minister was reportedly present at the scene. The families of the victims have filed complaints with police, but no action has been taken.

Human Rights Watch called on all political parties to publicly denounce such acts of violence and urges Nepal’s new government to address security sector reform to strengthen investigations into serious crimes.

“Those behind these brutal attacks remain untouched by the law, as do members of the security forces and Maoists who were responsible for abuses during the conflict,” said Ganguly. “The people of Nepal want a ‘new Nepal’ that brings an end to the bloody mix of violence and politics.”