Nepal Officer in Custody – Justice for Maina Sunuwar … Maybe

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Major Niranjan Basnet, a senior officer implicated in the 2004 death of Maina Sunuwar in a Nepal Army camp after interrogation, is in Army custody after his return from Chad, where he had been deputed to a UN peacekeeping mission. More than 4,000 Nepali soldiers serve in UN missions around the world, and a peacekeeping assignment is considered a plum posting for members of the Nepali armed forces.

Basnet’s tenure in Chad was cut short when UN officials in charge of the force there expelled him upon learning of his alleged involvement in Sunuwar’s death.

In February 2004, during Nepal’s Maoist insurrection, 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar was taken away from her home for questioning by soldiers in civilian dress after a Maoist under interrogation mentioned her name and her mother’s name. “We’ll interrogate her and send her back,” said the senior Army officer, according to Sunuwar’s father.

Her interrogation began with Army officers holding her head underwater repeatedly until she nearly drowned, according to the verdict of a military court of inquiry. When Sunuwar would not confess to being a Maoist, the officers applied electric shocks to her wet hands and feet with a 220-volt current. After 90 minutes of torture, she admitted having casual contacts with Maoists over the previous months.

Sunuwar was left tied and blindfolded while the torturers ate lunch. When the guard posted to watch her called them back, they found her dead, apparently after choking on her own vomit. The base commander ordered her body buried 50 yards outside the base perimeter and fabricated a cover-up with local police, the Army verdict said.

Three officers were convicted of not following proper interrogation procedures by the court of inquiry but were released immediately after their trial because they had already served more time in detention than the six-month sentences handed down by the court.

The investigation will be reopened now, says a Nepali Army spokesman. There is heavy pressure for Basnet to be tried in a civilian court for Sunuwar’s murder, but the Army spokesman said that he would remain in military custody at least until the Chief of Army Staff returns to Nepal from an official visit to India. The Army position defies a directive by the defense minister to Army headquarters on the order of Prime Minister Madhav Nepal to turn Basnet over to police immediately.

The Army says that it has disciplined at least 60 soldiers for abuses during the insurrection, but no military personnel has ever faced civil justice, and it is not clear whether even now the Army will allow Basnet to come to trial.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.