(New York) – Nepali authorities should independently investigate allegations that police in Rupandehi district used excessive force during an eviction drive on October 10, killing four protesters, and injuring dozens, Human Rights Watch said today. Police have also used trumped up charges of “polygamy” to detain a women’s rights activist who was leading a protest against the failure to properly investigate two alleged murders linked to land acquisition.
Police initially defied an October 10 Supreme Court habeas corpus order to produce Ruby Khan, a human rights defender who had been arrested at a sit-in protest in Kathmandu. She was finally brought to the court, and released, on October 14. During her week in custody, Khan told Human Rights Watch, the police attempted to “bargain” with her saying she would be released if she ended her protest movement.
“Repeated failures to investigate and hold police officers accountable for abuses have contributed to a situation in which police misconduct is weakening the rule of law, and threatening public safety instead of protecting it,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Nepal’s foreign donors should call for immediate and real progress on accountability, and reform to end the habitual use of excessive lethal force, torture, custodial killings, and other serious crimes.”
Nepali authorities have repeatedly failed to hold security forces to account. In October 2020, the National Human Rights Commission said the government had failed to fully implement 87 percent of the commission’s recommendations made over the previous 20 years, especially by failing to take legal action against alleged abusers.
Along with other protesters, Khan had walked 500 kilometers to the capital, Kathmandu, from Nepalgunj, in southwest Nepal, to protest police inaction in the alleged murder of two women from Nepalgunj: Nirmala Kurmi, who has been missing since 2010, and Nakunni Dhobi, who died in July. The activists allege that both cases relate to attempts to forcibly acquire the victims’ land.
Thirteen protesters from the group, including Khan, were arrested at a peaceful sit-in protest in Kathmandu on the evening of October 8, but others were quickly released. The police defied a Supreme Court habeas corpus order issued on October 10 to produce her within 24 hours. Mohna Ansari, a former national human rights commissioner representing Khan, said that police told the court they did not know where Khan was, when in fact she had been transferred to police custody in Nepalgunj.
Ansari said that Khan, who has long campaigned against impunity for violence against women, was falsely charged with “polygamy” because she had criticized the conduct of police officers. Ordering her release on October 14, the Supreme Court found that there was no evidence to substantiate the charge and said the police behaved with “mala fide [ill] intent.”
The detention of Khan, an outspoken women’s rights activist, on manifestly false charges of polygamy, shows the police attempting to silence a woman who is demanding justice, Human Rights Watch said.
The police shooting at Motipur, in Rupandehi, occurred when the authorities moved to evict landless people who are in a long-running dispute with the government over plans to develop the area for industrial use. Government officials later claimed that officers acted in self defense when they opened fire on the crowd with live ammunition. The Nepal Police should abide by United Nations guidelines on the use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said, and take criminal action against officers who are responsible for unlawful killings.
There have been repeated incidents of police using excessive lethal force against protesters in southern Nepal in recent years. Majority of the population in the region belongs to the marginalized Madhesi community, which is underrepresented in national institutions, including the police, and at greater risk of police abuses.
About 60 people, including police officers, as well as dozens of Madhesi protesters and other members of the public, were killed during widespread protests against Nepal’s new constitution in 2015. Most were victims of police shooting. A Human Rights Watch investigation found evidence of serious abuses. The findings of an official inquiry were never published, and no police officer has been held accountable for the killings.
Other police killings of protesters in recent years include the shooting of a man at Kanchanpur in 2018, when local residents protested police mishandling of a child rape and murder; and the shooting of a man in Sarlahi district in 2019, when residents protested the accidental death of a child in an illegal sand mine. There have also been numerous recent cases in southern Nepal of people dying following alleged torture in police custody. In the 2020 custodial death of Bijay Mahara, of Rautahat district, the government has acknowledged that police officers appear to be responsible for his killing, but failed to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice.
The police in Nepal are also frequently accused of failing to register or investigate serious crimes, especially sexual violence or other crimes against women, and crimes against members of marginalized communities, or when the police themselves are allegedly responsible.
A major test for Nepal’s justice system is the case against a politician of the ruling Congress party, who is accused of being involved in the killing of about 20 people during the 2008 election campaign. For years, police and prosecutors failed to investigate or pursue the case, until the politician was arrested following a Supreme Court order. However, the 2011 murder of a petitioner in the case was never investigated, and there have been threats against witnesses and lawyers. Earlier in 2021, before he took office, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba reportedly said he wanted to free the politician.
Longstanding and near complete impunity for human rights abuses committed in Nepal, going back to the period of the armed conflict that ended 15 years ago, is contributing to ongoing abuses, and having a deeply corrosive effect on accountable governance and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said.
“The government of Nepal should ensure that credible investigations are carried out when abuses are committed, and that police officers who are responsible for misconduct or violations are held fully accountable,” Ganguly said. “And Nepal’s international partners, who provide donor aid in support of addressing gender-based violence, promoting good governance, and the rule of law, should recognize that without any meaningful action on accountability progress will likely remain elusive.”