(New York) - The government of Nepal should ensure that the Nepal Army immediately hands over an army major implicated in the murder of a 15-year-old girl in 2004 to police custody, so civilian criminal proceedings against him can proceed, Human Rights Watch said today. Donors supporting justice and the peace process in Nepal should insist that the government of Nepal act promptly in this case, Human Rights Watch said.
Major Niranjan Basnet, who had been serving as a peacekeeper in Chad, was returned to Nepal on December 13, 2009, after the UN discovered that he had been charged in 2007 with the illegal detention, killing, and torture of the girl, Maina Sunuwar. He has never appeared before a civilian court to face these charges, and was allowed to join the peacekeeping mission by Nepal's government in September despite the pending charges. Upon his return, the army, which has previously defied court orders and shielded Major Basnet from prosecution, placed him in military custody.
"The Nepal Army, which has consistently protected Basnet, promoted him, and even recommended him as a UN peacekeeper, cannot be trusted," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "After five years of evading justice, Basnet should be handed over to appear before a civilian judge so that he can be duly prosecuted."
Sunuwar's killing took place during the decade-long conflict ending in 2006 between Maoists and government forces, in which over 13,000 people died. Despite a peace agreement, followed by elections, not a single person has been prosecuted in civilian courts for serious human rights abuses during the armed conflict.
The army claims to have disciplined several soldiers for human rights violations following investigations in military courts. However, three others accused in Sunuwar's death were given only six-month sentences for minor offenses. This raises serious concerns about whether military trials of members of the armed forces and other state officials accused of serious human rights violations such as murder and torture can be trusted to meet international human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said.
"A fair, speedy, and public prosecution of Major Basnet will allow Nepal to show that it is determined to end impunity and deliver justice," Ganguly said. "There cannot be lasting peace as long as it appears that neither Maoists nor government forces will ever face justice for murder and other serious crimes committed during the conflict."
The Sunuwar killing has become a test case for justice in Nepal. Human Rights Watch urged donors supporting the peace process and security reform, such as the European Union, US, and the United Nations, to let the Nepal government know they are closely monitoring the government's and army's handling of this case. Human Rights Watch said donors should ensure that an effective system of vetting is in place for any Nepali security force promotions, overseas UN peacekeeping duties, or specialized training abroad.
"The failure of rule of law is already threatening the peace process," Ganguly said. "The international community should be seriously concerned that in the Basnet case, the army has not only defied the rule of law, but violated international trust by sending someone charged with serious crimes to be a member of a peacekeeping mission."
Background InformationSoldiers took Sunuwar from her home in Kharelthok VDC-6 in Kavre District on the morning of February 17, 2004. They were looking for her mother, Devi Sunuwar, who was not at home. When her friends and relatives went to the Lamidanda barracks the following day and demanded her release, the army denied having arrested her. After weeks of intensive campaigning for word of her fate, the army told Devi Sunuwar in April that her daughter had been killed. Under pressure from local and international human rights groups, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the European Union, and US, the army prosecuted three men accused of involvement in the killing in a military court.
According to the report of an army court of inquiry board, Basnet, then a captain, was in charge of the army patrol that arrested Maina Sunuwar and he was present during the early part of her questioning, including, according to the board, when her head was put under water. However, he was not brought before the court martial.
According to army records, the three men accused, Bobi Khatri, Sunil Prasad Adhikari, and Amit Pun, were only charged with minor offenses of using improper interrogation techniques and not following procedures during the disposal of the girl's body. Although convicted of both offenses, they were sentenced to only six months in prison, and were then freed because they had spent that amount of time confined to barracks during the investigation.
As a result of police investigations, Sunuwar's body, which had been illegally buried at the Panchkal army camp, was exhumed in March 2007. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, in response to petitions by her family, ordered the public prosecutor in Kavre to complete investigations and file charges. Under pressure from the Supreme Court, charges of illegal detention, torture, and murder were filed in the Kavre District Court against the three army officers named earlier and Basnet. The court issued arrest warrants and summonses. But none of them were arrested or appeared at a hearing in the case, nor has the Nepal Army responded to repeated requests for cooperation from the Kavre police.
On September 13, 2009 the District Court ordered Nepal Army Headquarters to proceed immediately with the automatic suspension of Basnet, who had since been promoted to major despite the serious allegations against him. He was instead included in the UN peacekeeping team that was sent to Chad. The UN peacekeeping team expelled him on December 9, when they became aware of the charges he was facing in Nepal.