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 Touture and democracy in Nepal.

On 11 January 2004, Om Prakash Timilsina was arrested by the then-Royal Nepalese Army on suspicion of having links to Maoist rebels and held in an army barracks for five months.

During this time, the Maoist insurgency against Nepal's government was growing stronger, with the army being called in to fight the guerrillas. The midnight knock at Timilsina's door was indicative of what had been the way of life in the Himalayan nation since 2001.

What followed that midnight knock was a session of torture that Timilsina, and others like him, will never forget.

"A major put me down on the floor and wrapped wires round my wrists," Timilsina told Advocacy Forum Nepal (AFN), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that monitors detention centers and provides legal aid to victims of human rights abuse. "Then in an interval of three minutes, he gave me three shocks. [Then] he beat me with a wooden stick. After that, he sat on my back, sipping tea."

Timilsina's ordeal occurred at a time Nepal was being indirectly ruled by King Gyanendra. The monarch had ascended the throne in 2001 after a midnight massacre in the palace in the capital city Kathmandu wiped out his elder brother, King Birendra, and the entire royal family. In a move that signaled that he did not want to remain a mere figurehead, Gyanendra sacked the prime minister in October 2002 and began appointing a succession of premiers to consolidate his power.

In February 2005, having decided to rule directly, the king seized power with the help of the army and ran the government for 15 months before an uprising forced him to step down in April 2006.

The 19-day revolt is regarded as a landmark in Nepal's history, ending the king's authoritarian rule and restoring democracy. The new multi-party government signed a peace agreement with the Maoist guerrillas, who ended their 10-year "People's War" and finally joined the ruling alliance this year.

Though the civil war has ended, the practice of torture by security forces and the Maoists continues in Nepal.

Last week, AFN released a report based on its findings in the 35 detention centers it monitored from April 2006, when the royal government fell, to April of this year. "Torture Continues: A Brief Report on the Practice of Torture in Nepal," documents over 1,300 new cases of torture since the restoration of democracy.

"[...]One year after the historic Jana Andolan [people's movement], Nepal still suffers from an enormous deficit in human rights protection," the report said. "Torture still continues, the culture of impunity reigns and victims continue to suffer from the mental and physical wounds of egregious human rights violations and abuses."

Common methods of torture include administering electric shocks, sexual abuse and savage beatings with iron rods and bamboo sticks.

The report noted the June 2006 case of Sikha Ram Chaudhary, who was detained by Chitwan National Park officials in southern Nepal. Chaudhary was suspected of stealing rhino horns.

According to the report, Chaudhary was subjected to severe beatings and burns with cigarette butts for a week before falling unconscious. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead. The autopsy report showed that he had seven broken ribs, which had caused his respiratory system to collapse.

Of the close to 4,000 detainees interviewed by the NGO, nearly 28 percent said they had been subjected to torture. The worst perpetrators were the police, who were responsible for over 1,200 out of just over 1,300 cases of torture. Though the sweeping power enjoyed by the army to execute arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial executions officially ended in April 2006, the report documented 17 cases of torture, four rapes and six cases of illegal detention by the troops.

Even the Maoist guerrillas who pledged to give up violence were responsible for 67 cases of torture, one case of rape and 96 cases of abduction. Minors received the worst treatment, with close to 37 percent saying they had been tortured and around 43 percent reporting that they had been detained illegally.

The tip of the torture iceberg
The findings could be just the tip of the iceberg. Given that AFN monitors detention centers in only 13 out of 75 districts and these include only police cells and not army detention centers, the actual figure could be substantially higher.

"In the remote areas especially, detention centers are often out of bounds for human rights monitors," said Dr Bhogendra Sharma, president of Kathmandu-based NGO Center for Victims of Torture, which provides medical and psychological treatment to torture victims.

"For instance, we were not allowed access to detainees in Nawalparasi [the site of ethnic violence in the southern plains since January]," Sharma told ISN Security Watch. "Old habits die hard. For torture to end, the culture of impunity has to end first.

Activists point to two prominent torture cases for which national and international organizations are campaigning for justice: the Maina Sunuwar case and the Bhairavnath battalion case.

In February 2004, 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar was taken from her home by a group of plain-clothed soldiers who originally wanted to intimidate Maina's mother who had witnessed the gang rape and murder of her niece by security forces. As neither of Maina's parents were home at the time, the soldiers took the girl to an army training center where she was given electric shocks until she died.

According to AFN, after her death, the three perpetrators shot her in the back of the head to make it look like she was killed while trying to escape and buried her body.

The NGO helped Maina's mother file a case against the soldiers, which was also taken up by Amnesty International and several foreign diplomats, including the US ambassador to Nepal, James Francis Moriarty.

The ensuing publicity forced the army to conduct a court martial. However, the three men were found guilty only of "not following procedures," Two captains were ordered to pay NRS 25,000 each (approximately US$395) as compensation and were declared ineligible for promotion for one year. The colonel involved was fined NRS 50,000 and made ineligible for promotion for two years.

Authorities exhumed Maina's body in March, but there has been no investigation. Though the Supreme Court ordered the army and police in May to explain the delay and produce the original case files, no documents have been submitted.

In the second case, the Bhairavnath battalion of the army ran a secret torture camp in its barracks in the heart of Kathmandu. Maoist suspects were held for long periods while blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs. At least 49 of the prisoners are missing. The Maoists say they were gunned down on the outskirts of the city and then buried secretly.

Redefining torture
Though the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year compiled a report with graphic description of the torture methods and names of prisoners and asked the government to punish the men running the camp, no action has been taken.

"The criminal justice system has to be overhauled," Chandra Kanta Poudel, IT and administrative manager at AFN told ISN Security Watch. "Though there is a Torture Compensation Act, it is not enough. Torture has to be made a criminal offense."

The Torture Compensation Act provides for a maximum compensation payment of NRS 100,000. To make a claim, a victim has to file within 35 days of being tortured or released from detention, often a near impossible task given the geographical barriers and lack of legal remedies. Most importantly, it regards only an act of violence occurring during official detention as torture.

"We are lobbying for a new torture law," says Sharma. "Also, we are asking the government to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture, that would allow national as well as international organizations to monitor torture in Nepal."

Nepal's Law and Justice Ministry says a new torture law is in the offing.

"The government has abolished torture," Kedar Poudel, a ministry spokesperson, told ISN Security Watch. "The state doesn't condone torture. The acts reported are committed by individuals and the government asks victims to use the legal remedy available. Security officials found guilty of torture will be punished."

According to Poudel, the Law and Justice Ministry and the Home Ministry are drafting a new bill to be tabled in parliament. "It will re-define torture," he says, "and make it a criminal offense. We have been told to give it high priority."

Another top priority for the government is holding elections in November, but it first has to quell the growing violence in the southern plains, where nearly 90 people have died since January. The elections have already been postponed once; it remains to be seen if they will now be held on 22 November as scheduled.

Until this exercise is conducted with some semblance of credibility, a new government installed and a new constitution written and promulgated, the new torture law is unlikely to see the light of day.