Nepal: Security Forces “Disappear” Hundreds of Civilians

King’s Putsch Unleashes Abusive Army

Saturday 5 March 2005, by Human Rights Watch

(Kathmandu, March 1, 2005) — The Royal Nepalese Army, which assisted King Gyanendra’s February 1 seizure of power, is responsible for a widespread pattern of enforced disappearances, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Human Rights Watch called on the king and the army to immediately end the practice of “disappearances” and to take concrete steps to hold perpetrators accountable.

In the course of their nine-year struggle with Maoist insurgents, Nepali security forces have established themselves as one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances. More than 1,200 cases have been documented in the last five years by local human rights groups. According to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, in 2003 and 2004 Nepal recorded the highest number of new cases of “disappearances” in the world.

“Given the scale of ‘disappearances’ we have documented, the heightened role of the army after the king’s seizure of power is frightening,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “Maoist forces have a horrendous record of killings, torture and intimidation, but the response can’t be to unleash an army that has been responsible for so many ‘disappearances’ and other egregious human rights abuses.”

Human Rights Watch said the international community should act immediately to prevent a deepening ‘disappearances’ crisis in the wake of the royal takeover.

The new 171-page report, titled “Clear Culpability: ‘Disappearances’ by Security Forces in Nepal,” documents more than 200 enforced disappearances perpetrated by the Nepali army and police and analyzes the factors responsible for the crisis. Human Rights Watch’s research indicates that the actual number of “disappearances” in Nepal may be significantly underreported, since many families had not reported the “disappearances” of their relatives to any other institution, and Human Rights Watch was the first organization they talked to about the “disappearances.”

In almost all cases documented in the book-length study, witness testimonies confirmed that individuals who “disappeared” had last been seen in the custody of government security forces, who had detained them during large-scale operations, targeted raids, at checkpoints, on the streets, or from their places of work or study.

In a typical case, on September 17, 2004, a group of RNA soldiers detained 25-year old Prakash Tharu, a tractor driver from Suryapatuwa VDC, Bardia district. That day Tharu went to Nepalgunj to buy parts for his tractor and was detained while entering a movie theater with friends. He called his family one week after the arrest, saying he was in detention and asking them to come to Nepalgunj to try to find him, but unable to specify where he was being held. The family’s efforts to find Tharu proved futile, although they approached various authorities and human rights organizations. To date, Tharu’s whereabouts remain unknown.

In many cases, particularly those where the “disappeared” persons have been missing for years, it is likely that they were the victims of extrajudicial execution while in the custody of the security forces. In 28 of the cases Human Rights Watch documents in the report, families of the “disappeared” had reliable information that their relatives were killed after being taken into custody by the security forces. With only a single exception, the deaths have never been officially confirmed.

The testimonies of those who were able to visit family members in detention before they “disappeared” or who received reliable information about their relatives’ whereabouts strongly suggest that the majority of the “disappeared” were held incommunicado in unofficial places of detention, primarily army barracks and camps across Nepal. It is likely that at least some senior officers and civilian officials were directly aware of such cases. Human Rights Watch identified dozens of such illegal places of detention.

“‘Disappearances’ in Nepal have become an integral part of the counterinsurgency campaign, not just the aberrant actions of some ‘bad apples’ in the army,” said Adams. “Those in power—at present, the king and his new government—are responsible for ending these abuses. Thus far, instead of taking measures to end the practice, senior officials have been covering them up.”

Nepal’s security forces have been locked in a civil war against brutal Maoist insurgents since 1996. Since 2001, when the army was first deployed to counter the Maoists, it has amassed a record of indiscriminately attacking civilians, killing surrendered combatants, arbitrarily detaining suspects, and torturing and mistreating detainees.

“The number of civilians who have ‘disappeared’ while in army custody has soared since the army assumed overall command of the country’s security forces,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch said that one effect of the royal putsch has been to reduce the accountability of the armed forces. One of King Gyanendra’s first moves after seizing power was to prohibit any speech or action that criticized or would “hurt the morale” of the security forces.

The overwhelming impunity enjoyed by Nepali security forces and the sweeping powers granted to them by draconian antiterrorist legislation are significant factors leading to the “disappearances” crisis, Human Rights Watch said. The army has consistently ignored habeus corpus orders, showing its utter disdain for judicial authorities, while the courts have failed to insist upon compliance with their orders. The RNA and the Home Ministry have also persistently obstructed the efforts of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission to monitor places of detention and establish the whereabouts of the “disappeared.”

“The king’s suspension of fundamental constitutional rights accompanied by the targeting and repression of human rights activists and journalists has set the stage for even greater abuses and further increased the risk of ‘disappearances,’” said Adams. “Given the army’s record and increased Maoist activity, there is every reason to fear for the safety of Nepali civilians.”

The report emphasizes the role of the international community in pressuring the Nepali authorities to address the deteriorating human rights situation. Given Nepal’s dependence on donors and the large amount of military aid it receives from India, the United States, and United Kingdom, the international community has a great deal of leverage it can exercise in the current crisis.

Human Rights Watch called on:

 * The Nepali authorities to take immediate measures to put an end to the practice of enforced disappearances, investigate all reported cases, and publicly instruct the security forces on the impermissibility of these abuses.

 * States supporting Nepali security forces, including India, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to reassess their aid policies and make all military assistance to Nepal strictly contingent on the government’s adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law and exclude any assistance to units implicated in human rights violations.

 * The United Nations Commission on Human Rights to adopt a resolution at its upcoming session condemning abuses by both sides of the conflict and specifically addressing the responsibility of the Nepali security forces for widespread “disappearances,” and to appoint a Special Rapporteur to monitor the human rights situation in Nepal. The Commission on Human Rights should also authorize an increase in the monitoring capacity of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal, in support of and cooperation with Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, and insist on unfettered access to all parts of the country for human rights monitors.

“Only sustained and unified pressure will restore democratic governance and prevent a catastrophic escalation of the conflict,” said Adams.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch documented Maoist atrocities, including summary executions, torture, cruel and inhumane treatment, and persecution based on political persuasions. Human Rights Watch has also documented the intensely undemocratic culture of the Maoists which has generated a culture of fear and silence throughout the remote countryside.

Testimonies from “Clear Culpability: ‘Disappearances’ by Security Forces in Nepal”

The soldiers came to our village in the evening and burst into our house. As they were dragging my son to the street, I came out of the house, asked them where they were taking him, and begged them not to take my son away. But they pointed a gun at me and said they would shoot me if I did not go back into the house. They took him to the edge of the village, along with three other men, and an hour later we heard two long rounds of gunshots from there. But when we came, we found nothing there. An officer at the Rambhapur army post near our village first said we should bring a petition for their release, then suggested that they had been abducted by the Maoists, and finally said they had been taken to the Chisapani army barracks. But the officers there said they had no information.

— An elderly relative of 48-year old Jangu Tharu

After Som Bahadur was detained, for the first three months I visited him in the Fulbari army barracks. But one day I came to see him, and the army at the barracks told me he had been transferred to jail, but did not say which one. I searched every jail in the area, but could not find him. Then I inquired at the district police office in Pokhara, and the police said they had received his case, and were expecting him to be brought there. They told me he would come home soon, but he never did. Two months ago INSEC [local human rights group] inquired at the barracks again, and they said he was still alive, but they would not tell them where he was.

— A relative of 29-year old Som Bahadur Bishwokarma

There were many soldiers in the village that night. One group took my older son, Khagga, away. Shortly after they left, we heard two gunshots from across the field, and wanted to go, but other soldiers were still in the house and they did not let us. They had their flashlights and guns pointed at us. The soldiers [that left with Khagga] then came back and took a wooden bed from our house...Another group then took my other son, Kala Ram away-I heard he was ordered, along with other men, to carry Khagga’s body on that bed to their van. Next morning we went to the field and found Khagga’s small sleeping veil that he took with him, all covered in blood, but we have not seen his body, and Kala Ram also never came back.

— Elderly parents of 34-year old Khagga Tharu and 23-year old Kala Ram Tharu

To read the report “Clear Culpability: ‘Disappearances’ by Security Forces in Nepal” during the embargo period, please see:

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