Print Edition - 2018-12-31  |  2018 The Year of Promises

#WhoKilledNirmala?

  • When those in power and with agency to protect the citizens and uphold societal law and order responds with hostility to an earnest call for accountability, it shows how fractured the country’s justice and law enforcement system is.
- NAYAK PAUDEL

Dec 31, 2018-

Incidents of rape and violence against women and children are sadly common place in Nepal. Every other day, newspapers report stories about young girls and women subjected to sexual violence and murder.

The catalogue of sexual abuse, rape and murder continued to rise in 2018. But the rape and murder of 13-year-old Nirmala Pant in Kanchanpur district of western Nepal on July 26 shocked the national conscience. The teenager’s death and what followed in its wake became one of the most widely covered news stories in 2018.

Nirmala became more than a name in the grim roster of rape and murder victims as citizens across the country organised rallies and vigils demanding justice for her. What galvanised the masses wasn’t Nirmala’s gruesome killing per se, but the exposure of wicked conspiracy and abuse of power committed by the government authorities to suppress the case.

The laundry list of dirty details is out in the open. From evidence tampering, framing of an innocent man to the use of threats and coercion to extract false confession—these are but few of the many transgressions committed by Kanchanpur police.

The latest inquiry report by the probe committee of Nepal Police found 18 officers directly involved in evidence tampering and framing Dilip Singh Bista in the Nirmala rape and murder case. The other inquiry panels in the past had also pointed out some damning details against Kanchanpur police and the local administration.

It’s been more than five months since Nirmala’s body was discovered in a sugarcane field, laying face down partially submerged in a waterlogged sugarcane field next to the road that she cycled through daily on her way to school. Her killers remain at large, largely in part due to gross dereliction of duty by police and the local administration of Kanchanpur.

Protest rallies demanding justice for Nirmala have continued across the country despite the authorities’ attempts at squelching them. On August 24, Kanchanpur police opened fire at demonstrators, killing 15-year-old Sunny Khuna and maiming 20-year-old Arjun Bhandara beyond recovery. More than two dozen protesters were injured. Rally participants are still being manhandled and detained.

Rather than showing contrition for police misconduct and making an overture to appease the disaffected masses, the government and its law enforcement apparatus have all but tried to suppress the civil movement.

“The government has been trying its best to suppress the issue because it doesn’t want the international community to find out. The ongoing movement will stop only after the authorities have captured the perpetrators who raped and murdered Nirmala,” says Mohna Ansari, member of the National Human Rights Commission.

During her Nepal visit in November, Dubravka Simonvic, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, told media that how the Nepal government handles the rape and murder case of Nirmala will determine its commitment to human rights.

“My mandate will closely follow any developments in this case, in the hope that it will be effectively resolved in line with the human rights standards,” she had said.

Nirmala murder case has become a blot on the government led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.

When protests fanned out from Kanchanpur to the streets of Kathmandu, Oli responded with a gag order to silence the people’s clamour for justice and restoration of accountability and trust in police.

The government spokesperson and Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota summoned the editors of the five state-owned media– Rastriya Samachar Samiti, Gorkhapatra, The Rising Nepal, Radio Nepal and Nepal Television – and instructed them not to publish and broadcast any critical news related to the the rape and murder of Nirmala Pant.

Meanwhile, the public trust in police institution that eroded in the wake of the Nirmala rape and murder case has shown no sign of healing. The sacking of SP Dilliraj Bista and Inspector Jagadish Prasad Bhatta and initiating disciplinary action against a slew of officers for their role in undermining the murder investigation, the people’s distrust in police remain the same.

Nepal Police chief IG Sarbendra Khanal, instead of rising to the occasion to dispel public mistrust in police, has been prevaricating and deflecting media inquiries. During a recent press meet at the Nepal Police headquarters, IG Khanal took a dig at media for unnecessarily stirring up the case.

“Journalists seem to know more about this case than police,” he snapped.

When those in power and with agency to protect the citizens and uphold societal law and order responds with hostility to an earnest call for accountability, it shows how fractured the country’s justice and law enforcement system is.

Restoring public trust in police is going to be difficult after what happened during the Nirmala case murder investigation, reckons Hemanta Malla, former head of the Nepal Police Central Investigation Bureau.

“When officers of the law tamper evidence and try to frame innocent people as culprits, public-police relations are bound to suffer strain. Nepal Police should remain steadfast and perform its duty diligently to get to the real perpetrators,” he says.

“Yes, there are many ways of investigation and by now the police should have gathered sufficient evidence to capture Nirmala’s killers. But, owing to several lapses and misconducts in the investigation process, it seems that there is not a single piece of compelling evidence, save the DNA samples taken from the victim’s vaginal swab.”

But even the DNA tests have so far failed to provide any promising lead in the case. Every person in the police suspects list— Kiran Bista, the son of sacked SP Dilliraj Bista; Ayush Bista, the nephew of Bhimdatta Municipality Mayor Surendra Bista; and the two latest suspects whom police were certain had committed the crime, Bishal Chaudhary and Pradip Rawal— have been cleared by the DNA evidence.

The latest development, or lack thereof, in Nirmala’s rape and murder case has only dashed what little hope there was to offer Nirmala and her distraught family justice.

It’s been more than a month since Nirmala’s parents have been staging a sit-in outside the Kanchanpur District Administration Office. Supporting the couple in their struggle for justice are the ordinary citizens, who offer them consolation and hope. It’s high time that the government took serious steps to serve justice.

Published: 31-12-2018 11:12

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