Many in South Asia believe that performing funeral rites are crucial to set the soul free, or else the dead wander restlessly.
For those who hold these beliefs, Nepal is full of ghosts. During the brutal 10-year civil war between the Nepal army and Maoist insurgents from 1996-2006, more than 13,000 people were killed. But many families are yet to complete the last rites for their dead or missing loved ones, saying that they will only organise funerals when the perpetrators have been properly punished.
Arjun Lama was abducted by Maoists on April 29, 2005 during a public function – and is still missing. His relatives have given evidence to the National Human Rights Commission stating that Lama was brought before Maoist leader Agni Sapkota, who ordered his execution. The Supreme Court, in 2008, ordered the police to register a murder case against six Maoists, including Sapkota, but the case remains stalled, and the perpetrators are yet to be prosecuted.
This case exemplifies the way in which the main political parties in Nepal shield those responsible for human rights abuses. Under public pressure, in 2015 Nepal established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and an Enforced Disappearances Enquiry. The commissions only began functioning one year into their two-year mandate and, to date, have received nearly 60,000 complaints of conflict-related abuses. But sadly these bodies appear to be largely window dressing. As the Supreme Court has said, they fall short of international standards, principally by offering amnesty to alleged perpetrators of the gravest violations.
Glimmer of hope
There is now some hope for change. A new government, led by Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda from his guerilla days, took office in August, and says it will take steps that might finally put the ghosts to rest. Dahal said that he is committed to justice and has promised to set up a special court to prosecute the worst conflict violations, including killings, torture, sexual violence, and disappearances. But activists fear that there will just be some token gestures.“We want reconciliation, so the remedy should not be about revenge,” said Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi. “But we don’t believe in blanket amnesty or impunity.” He says his government will ensure that the truth commission is able to do its work and that cases it recommends for prosecution are brought before a special court.
These are soothing words, but victims have reason to be sceptical. Promises of justice and accountability have repeatedly been made and broken, including by the Maoists, since the peace agreement was signed in 2006.
Some victims say they will test the new commitments. “We have put in applications to the TRC because we didn’t want it to appear that we are not cooperating,” said Devi Sunuwar, whose daughter and niece were killed by soldiers in separate incidents. “We have met so many people, put in so many applications. Nothing happened, but how can we give up hope?”
The case of Devi Sunuwar’s daughter, Maina, who was killed in army custody in February 2004, has come to symbolise the obstruction of justice in Nepal. Under international pressure, the Nepali army ordered an inquiry which found that the 15-year-old died from torture, including water-boarding and electric shocks. The army staged a court martial, but in a shocking outcome the officers responsible were not convicted for murder, but of using inappropriate interrogation techniques. They were sentenced to just six months in prison, but were set free as they had already spent that period confined to barracks during investigations. Devi Sunuwar says she will only perform the last rites for her daughter after her killers have been properly punished.
The Maoists have also blocked accountability. Nanda Prasad died on the 333rd day of his hunger strike in September 2014 after failing to obtain the prosecution of Maoist combatants who killed his son in June 2004. The authorities have failed to enforce court directives to arrest the main accused. Prasad’s wife, Ganga Maya Adhikari, is continuing her own hunger strike and says she will not perform the last rites for her husband until all the suspects are arrested.
Transitional justice is difficult because abuses that occur during a conflict are seldom properly investigated. At a time when there is a great risk of being targeted by a warring party, people don’t often don’t like to file complaints. Even if they try, police often resist accepting them, fearing retribution.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed 50 women who said that they were raped during the conflict. Most had not filed police complaints. Though it was difficult for some to identify individual perpetrators, many others have been identified. These cases will be a test of the sincerity of the army and Maoists, who will need to help with inquiries to find the abusers.
Like Ganga Maya and Devi Sunuwar, the families of many victims have decided not to perform funeral rites until they have obtained justice. As the daughter of one victims said, “It has been years, and nothing has happened. But my mother refuses to give up and says the last rites can only happen when the killers are in jail. In our village, they say ours is a haunted house.” Her family has heard of a secret burial site, but the government has not kept promises of conducting forensic tests or securing the premises until testing is possible. “To perform the rites, we at least need his bones,” the daughter says.
The new government should prove sceptics wrong and ensure prompt investigations into conflict-related abuses. This should include setting up an independent investigation unit, with international technical experts, to investigate all cases recommended for prosecution by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An effective witness and victim protection scheme is crucial considering repeated and ongoing allegations of threats and intimidation. All perpetrators should be held accountable regardless of their rank or party affiliation, and the concept of command responsibility and superior authority should be incorporated into Nepali law. Nepal needs to start caring about the victims of the conflict, and not just those that committed abuses.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Her Twitter handle is @mg2411.