Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai and Nepal’s human rights organizations do not get along. In November 2011, in a press conference at Tribhuvan International Airport, Bhattarai derided the human rights workers as “dollar farmers”—an often-used derision of Nepali NGOs. The human rights workers had flamed Bhattarai’s fury by questioning his decision to recommend clemency to a convicted criminal Bal Krishna Dhungel. The Supreme Court had convicted Dhungel, a Maoist comrade of the Prime Minister, of killing Ujjwan Shrestha in 1998.
A few days ago the human rights workers received another round of fire from the Prime Minister. This time around Bhattarai was provoked by Nepal Police which had arrested five Maoist cadres allegedly responsible for murdering a journalist, Dekendra Thapa, in 2004. Reacting to the arrest the Prime Minister said: “the accused were not arrested under instructions from the government. They have been arrested at the backing of human rights activists… There is no involvement of the state in their arrest.” And “… an ordinance on Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearance Commission are awaiting endorsement at President´s Office for the past several months”.
With these words, the Prime Minister undermined the authority of the government’s primary law enforcement agency, the Nepal Police, and questioned its line of command. He also dragged the President into controversy. Nepal’s human rights workers help to bring international attention to Bhattarai’s attempt not to bring right abusers to justice. Bhattarai’s distaste for the human rights workers is therefore not surprising. But why the vitriol against the Nepal Police and why drag the President into the fray? Here are some possible explanations.
Nepal Police acting independent of the political masters frustrates Bhattarai’s agenda of selective application of law. One of the accused in Dekendra Thapa’s murder is already reported to have confessed that he witnessed his comrades burying Thapa alive. This has made Bhattarai’s task doubly difficult. Bhattarai’s public rebuke demoralizes the police, further jeopardizing law enforcement in the country and undermining the fundamental principles of rule of law. However, more important for Bhattarai, it makes them beholden to the political masters and reluctant to take independent action on human rights abusers, regardless of how legally compelling the case may be. This is what Bhattarai has tried to achieve for a long time.
Bhattarai truly believes that all victims—including non-combatant civilians—of abuses by the Maoists and the government forces from the so-called conflict period were collateral damage. That the Prime Minister considers even the perpetrators of gruesome cruelty against non-combatants legitimate and deserving pardon is evident from his recorded comments after looking at the picture of Muktinath Adhikari, a schoolteacher killed and then hung by the Maoists for public display. He wrote: “The nature of violence is based on history and class. To forget that and make a classless and non-historical analysis of violence is not helpful.” Not a word of empathy in these dry, ideologically loaded, heartless comments. Forgiving killers of other people becomes easy when ideology supplants humanity. (The picture was included in the photo exhibition called “Testimonies from Nepal Conflict, 1996-2006”. Bhattarai visited the exhibition in Gorkha. See picture).
Bhattarai truly believes that all victims of abuses from the conflict period, including non-combatant civilians, are collateral damage.
Bhattarai is aware that despite the hullabaloo around his education and perceived simple lifestyle as well as his promises when he first took office to ensure that a draft of the new constitution is prepared during his time in office, and governance cleaned up, the constitution has not been written and his government has been a dismal failure. He has accepted this in several press conferences, albeit understandably, without the word “dismal”. Since the dissolution of the Constitution Assembly, he has been hanging on to power by the skin of his teeth. His party is broken and there is substantial opposition to his leadership. His declining support within the party and an on-again off-again relationship with the party chairman makes his future after the inevitable fall from power uncertain. His attempt to win over some of the disenchanted young Maoists by showering them with money from the government treasury has not worked. The Supreme Court stopped his cabinet’s decision to give rehabilitation money to “combatants” disqualified by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN).
The Prime Minister’s reference to the ordinance pending at the President’s office was an attempt to hold President Yadav responsible for the delay in the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearance Commission. These commissions were supposed to have settled the question of conflict era crimes and disappearances. Bhattarai wants carte blanche on ordinances. However, like other sensitive ordinances pending in the President’s office, the President cannot sign this ordinance without the support of the opposition parties. Bhattarai is no doubt aware of this, yet had no qualms about making the mischievous remark. With no one to blame, he is trying to drag the President and even the Supreme Court to justify his failures. In a “Tough Talk” interview with Dil Bhusan Pathak of News 24 TV a few months ago, he blamed the Supreme Court judges’ archaic beliefs for part of his failures.
The news of the arrest of Dekendra’s alleged killers came at the heels of Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama’s arrest by Scotland Yard under Britain’s law of Universal Jurisdiction. This law allows prosecution of alleged war crimes committed by non-British individuals. The arrest of Lama demonstrates that the dragnet to catch human rights abusers spreads beyond Nepal’s borders. Commenting on Lama’s arrest, Amnesty International said: “It is a welcome indication of the UK’s readiness to comply with its international obligations in combating torture. It could also be an important step for victims failed by the Nepali justice system”. Here is a clear message: no violator of human rights, including the bigwigs in the two Maoist parties as well as the Nepal Army, is safe anymore, wherever he/she is.
The arrest of Lama also demonstrates that the Prime Minister needs to take to heart that human right is an internationally accepted principle under the United Nations Charter. It is unacceptable to push crimes against humanity under the carpet for political convenience. The murder of non-combatant civilians is an abuse of human rights and a crime under any national law, including that of Nepal. Dekendra and Ujjwan were non-combatants, so were the 38 civilians killed on a bus in Madi, Chitwan, which was blown up by the Maoists in June 2005, as were Muktinath Adhikari and hundreds of others killed by the Maoists and Nepal Army during the conflict. Pardoning these perpetrators of heinous crimes is against the basic concepts of the rule of law and all human rights charters Nepal is signatory to. Bhattarai is unlikely to succeed in his devious game. The people may look tired and passive at the moment, but they are very aware of what is happening around them. When their dignity and a naturally irrepressible hunger for justice are constantly undermined by deception, they will eventually react, maybe explosively. The politics of deception has no future. The common people are much smarter than most politicians think.
The author is geotechnical engineer and member of NRN Canada