The rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl in a small town in Nepal two months ago has led to a national outcry. And the failure of the police to catch the perpetrator has raised serious questions about their ability to investigate crimes and even of possible complicity and a cover-up.

The Class 9 student from Mahendranagar in Kanchanpur, a southwestern district bordering India, left for her friend’s home, just a kilometre and a half away from her own, on July 26. She did not come back home. A frantic search by her mother, who is estranged from her husband, proved futile. She says the police refused to file a missing persons report. The following day, the girl’s body was found in a flooded sugarcane field 1 km from her home. Next to her lay her bicycle and a notebook her family says she had taken to give to her friend. The book was dry though it had rained through the night.

According to reports, the police took more than an hour after they were informed to reach the spot, where they trampled on any evidence that might have remained. A video clip shot by an onlooker reportedly shows a woman constable in plain clothes washing the girl’s kurta as residents swarm the crime scene, which was not sealed.

The girl’s parents cremated her, allegedly under police pressure. The police said the girl had been raped before she was murdered. They rounded up more than a dozen people, including several who had taken the road along the sugarcane field. They then zeroed in on Dilip Singh Bista, a murder convict, who reportedly confessed to the crime. But a DNA test failed to establish that he was the rapist.

Soon after, protests erupted in Mahendranagar demanding police action. One person was killed and two were injured as the police opened fire at a group of protestors in August. The protests soon spread across Nepal with citizens coming out on the streets and organising marches and shutdowns, demanding justice for the girl. They also expressed their anger on social media with hashtags such as #rageagainstrape. In mid-September, the girl’s parents, alleging a cover-up by the police and questioning the government’s silence, joined the protests in Kathmandu. They received assurances from Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and the political leadership that the perpetrator would be arrested.

But the police, facing accusations of weakening the case and making random arrests, are yet to catch the culprit. Dilli Raj Bista, the superintendent of police of Kanchanpur, and five other police officers have been suspended. An investigation team headed by a top police official – the third such team to look into the case – started its work this month.

Rich and influential get away?

The abuse of women and girls is commonplace in deeply patriarchal Nepal. More than 1,500 cases of rape were reported last year, according to the police. In August, the country increased the jail term for rapists from 15 years to 20 years. The recent protests against the teenaged girl’s rape and murder have generated greater awareness and reporting on rape.

The case also comes at a time when investigations into human rights abuses, including rape and murder, during Nepal’s decade-long Maoist insurgency have been allowed to linger on, perpetuating a culture of impunity. This has given credence to the notion that influential people will not be punished for their crimes.

A clue to what happened in Mahendranagar – a town that has seen the migration of people, both rich and poor, from the hills in the country’s north for a better life – perhaps lies in its social-political dynamics. Powerful forces appear to be arrayed against the girl’s mother, who single-handedly raised her three daughters after her husband remarried and left her for not giving birth to a son. The woman sold pani puri and moonlighted as a goods carrier, often crossing the border into the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Powerful people in the area could exploit such vulnerabilities.

This case also seems to point to the tendency among politicians from a certain area to support influential residents. They manipulate and use the police during elections. In recent months, there have been media reports of legislators bailing out party cadre accused of grave crimes.

Several activists have questioned the manner in which Dilli Raj Bista, the head of the district police, handled the case of the 13-year-old girl. They point to the fact that in the course of his career, Bista headed the police departments of several districts in the country’s far-western region, which helped him build close ties with powerful politicians who represent the region in Kathmandu. They also point to the alleged reluctance of the authorities to take action against the district police. The activists want Bista and the other police officers to be charged with destruction of evidence.

This Wednesday marks two months since the rape and murder. Two months in which the perpetrator or perpetrators are yet to be identified and arrested. Worryingly, in the age of a fickle media, coverage of the case has also begun to fade from the front pages of newspapers. The hope is that this will not be one of those cases that remains unresolved. The battle for justice may be slow and daunting but it must persist.

Deepak Adhikari is a journalist in Nepal. His Twitter handle is @DeepakAdk.