Cricket star Sandeep Lamichhane returned to Nepal and was immediately arrested Thursday, nearly a month after a court issued a warrant over the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl.

Lamichhane, a poster boy for the growing popularity of cricket in Nepal, was taken into custody when he landed, Dinesh Raj Mainali, a spokesman for Kathmandu district police, told AFP.

Wearing a white hoodie, black cap and black mask, he was swiftly escorted out of Kathmandu airport to a police van waiting outside.

Earlier Lamichhane had posted on his Facebook page that he was returning home to fight the accusations.

“I will fully cooperate in all stages of investigation and will fight (the) legal battle to prove my innocence. Let the justice prevail,” Lamichhane posted.

Lamichhane, 22, was suspended as Nepal’s cricket captain after a court in the country issued the arrest warrant on September 8.

It followed an accusation from the 17-year-old that the cricketer had raped her in a Kathmandu hotel room in August.

But Lamichhane failed to return to Nepal from the West Indies where he was playing in the Caribbean Premier League.

Growing popularity

Cricket does not enjoy the same adulation in mountainous Nepal it does elsewhere in South Asia.

But it has been growing in popularity, with Nepal given one-day international status by the world governing body in 2018.

Lamichhane has been a major part in this rise as the most sought-after Nepali cricketer in lucrative leagues around the world.

The leg spinner’s big break came when he was snapped up for the lucrative Indian Premier League, the world’s richest cricket tournament, in 2018.

Lamichhane last month issued a statement on social media reiterating that the claims against him were baseless, and defended his decision not to return to Nepal.

“News of the arrest warrant issued against me... made me mentally disturbed. I could not think what to do and what not to do,” he wrote.

“My health condition is gradually improving and I am planning to return to Nepal as soon as possible to vehemently fight back (against the allegations).”

Soon afterwards, Nepali police said they had sought help from Interpol with a “diffusion” notice asking member countries for their cooperation in bringing Lamichhane back to the country to face charges.

Victims speaking up

About 2,300 rape cases were reported in Nepal in the last fiscal year, according to police, but rights workers say many more assaults go unreported.

Only a handful of women in Nepal spoke out during the global #MeToo movement and those accused have faced little or no repercussions.

“Victims are now speaking up and there is hope in how the police is taking action. But laws are not enough... A lot needs to be done to push societal change,” said Mohna Ansari, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission.

Public opinion on the case has been divided, with many supporting the hugely popular cricketer.

The accusations against Lamichhane come after the conviction in early September of popular Nepali actor Paul Shah for sexual misconduct with a minor.

He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and ordered to pay his victim compensation.

In May, hundreds protested in Kathmandu for better laws and enforcement in cases of sexual violence after an aspiring model posted a series of TikTok videos detailing abuse when she was a teenager.