On April 16, 2017, the Kavre district court sentenced three army officers to life imprisonment for the murder of Sunuwar, a 15-year-old girl who was tortured in army custody and died as a result in February 2004. Sunuwar’s killing took place during the decade-long armed conflict between the Maoists and government forces that ended in 2006. A court martial in 2005 found that Sunuwar had died in army custody and convicted the three officers of torture and murder, but only sentenced the three perpetrators to six months’ imprisonment for minor offenses, and promptly released them on grounds that they had already served the six months while confined to army barracks during the period of investigation.
“These convictions are an important development in Nepal’s slow-paced justice system’s ability to deal with grave conflict-era human rights abuses,” said Sam Zarifi, Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists. “What we need now is for the government to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law to enforce them.”
The trial before the Kavre district court took place in the absence of any of the four accused, despite repeated court summonses, including an arrest warrant, to notify them of the charges and compel them to appear in court. The three accused army officers who were convicted of Sunuwar’s murder, Bobi Khatri, Amit Pun, and Sunil Adhikari, are no longer in the army and are believed to have fled abroad after the court martial proceedings. The fourth accused, who was acquitted, Major Niranjan Basnet, is still in the army and was repatriated to Nepal from a United Nations peacekeeping assignment in Chad in 2009 due to the indictment against him.
Sunuwar’s case has become emblematic of the shortcomings in Nepal’s justice system that have repeatedly frustrated efforts of Nepali conflict victims to secure justice for wartime abuses. Sunuwar’s mother first filed a report with the police in November 2005. Since then, there have been numerous procedural and political hurdles, and a lack of cooperation by the military as it sought to protect its own. An arrest warrant issued in 2008 was never enforced by Nepali authorities, with the police telling the court they were unable to trace them.
“Maina Sunuwar’s case was a true test case for the Nepal criminal justice system, but the government has a habit of simply ignoring court orders,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This is the first sign of hope for victims after more than 10 years since the end of the conflict – and now we need to see all those convicted of murder behind bars.”
The human rights organizations expressed concern that the government might refuse to seek to take measures to enforce the Kavre court’s verdict given its prior record on this and thousands of other conflict-era cases. In a disturbing example, the police have yet to implement an April 13, 2017 Supreme Court order to arrest Bal Krishna Dhungel, a Maoist politician convicted of a 1998 murder. Dhungel has yet to serve out his life sentence handed down by the courts. The court gave the police a week to execute its order and present Dhungel before it.
“The Kavre district court has done its job, reaffirming the independence of the judiciary from political and military pressure, and holding perpetrators of serious crimes committed during the conflict to account,” said Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International South Asia regional office director. “Now the authorities must do their job by breaking with the practice of successive past governments that ignore and undermine the courts’ decisions. We expect the government to promptly implement this week’s ruling.”