Nepal Thumbs Nose at Human Rights

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Major Niranjan Basnet, the Nepal Army officer implicated in the death of 15-year-old Maina Sunuwar in 2004 while in Army custody, will not be presented for civilian trial, an Army spokesman said Wednesday. Nor will he be brought before a military tribunal.

The Army spokesman said that Major Basnet “was found innocent in a Court Martial already. Therefor he cannot be tried in the civilian court again as it will be against the principle of double jeopardy.”

The spokesman also confirmed that there is no military action pending against Basnet. Army officials took Basnet into custody two weeks ago when he returned to Nepal after being expelled from a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Chad, apparently after commanders there learned of the allegations of human rights violations in Sunuwar’s death.

“The recent Court of Inquiry,” said the Army spokesman, “is intended only to find out why he was repatriated from the UN mission in Chad but not to punish him.”

The law applicable at the time of Sunuwar’s death gives the Army sole authority to try military personnel accused of crimes against civilians. That has since changed. The Military Act of 2006 and the interim constitution currently in effect in Nepal provide for civilian trials in such cases. The Army says that the new law cannot be applied retroactively.

The Army position defies an order from Nepal’s prime minister to the Defence Ministry to turn Major Basnet over to police, who hold an arrest warrant for him.

It is possible that Nepal’s president, who is the civilian supreme commander of the military under the interim constitution, could intervene, but the PM’s order cannot be legally enforced without the President’s approval. Failing that, the case against Major Basnet is at an end, despite protests from human rights activists here and abroad.

In another move sure to enrage human rights organizations, Nepal’s government elevated General Toran Jung Bahadur Singh to second in command of the Army. Singh has been accused in the disappearance in 2002 and 2003 of 49 people alleged to be Maoist combatants. The 49 were detained at an Army base commanded by Singh.

Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, the International Commission of Jurists, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and western embassies in Nepal are all on record as demanding action against Singh.

The UN issued a statement of “serious concern” about Singh’s promotion, saying that officers facing “credible allegations of human rights violations” should not be promoted and should face “full, transparent and impartial investigation.”

The United States has already suspended military assistance to Nepal over the charges against Major Basnet. Similar action from other countries can now be expected. The sanctions will probably not bear fruit, as China has consistently expressed willingness to increase military aid to Nepal.

Nepal’s Prime Minister leaves for an official visit to China on December 26.

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