KATHMANDU: It was shortly before lunch on a January afternoon when rebels stormed a village school in the mountains of central Nepal, dragged headmaster Muktinath Adhikari from the classroom, tied him to a tree trunk, and shot him in the head.
Sixteen years on, the chilling photograph of the 45-year-old science teacher – slumped in front of the tree with his hands bound behind him – still haunts the Himalayan nation.
Captured by a local journalist and republished widely since, it is a painful reminder that, despite the end of the civil war between Maoist fighters and the government in 2006, rights abusers remain free.
And even as a new coalition government – promising peace and prosperity – takes power, victims’ families, like Adhikari’s son, hold out little hope of justice.
“The government has no good intentions and doesn’t want to address the plight of the victims,” said Suman Adhikari, founder of the Conflict Victims’ Common Platform, a network of support groups for people affected by the violence.
“They simply want this situation to linger and keep victims and their families hopeful.”
Survivors, victims’ families and rights groups say successive governments have hindered efforts to probe human rights violations committed during the war.
But a senior official from one of the main parties in the new government said any delays were not deliberate, and cited other priorities such as adopting a new constitution and rebuilding the country after a huge earthquake in 2015.
“All other conditions of the peace deal with the Maoists have been completed,” Bishnu Rijal of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The new government will make required changes in the law to deliver justice to victims.”
60,000 CASES, NO PROSECUTIONS
Wedged between India and China, Nepal – famed as the birthplace of the Buddha and home to Mount Everest – is still reeling from the decade-long conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces that killed over 17,000 people.
Under the peace deal signed in 2006, both sides pledged to investigate and prosecute cases of human rights violations – from torture and rape to kidnappings and killings.
In 2015, two war crimes commissions were established – one to probe enforced disappearances and the other to investigate other serious abuses. Since then they have collected over 60,000 complaints of violations from victims’ families and survivors.
However, as the law stands, perpetrators have de facto amnesty because the commissions cannot demand they stand trial.
That is why, after more than a decade of peace, the handful of prosecutions to date are due to people taking their complaints to the courts.
Human rights groups said political parties were deliberately holding up investigations by the commissions to protect their members. Those who might be investigated include some party leaders and members of the security forces.
Campaigners want Nepal to amend its legislation to empower the commissions to refer prosecutions to the courts.
And, they said, there should be no amnesty, pardon or withdrawal of cases for violations such as kidnapping, torture, rape, enforced disappearance or extra-judicial killing.
Yet despite repeated Supreme Court rulings ordering that laws governing the commissions be amended in accordance with international standards, no action has been taken. The government has, however, extended the mandates of the commissions by a year for a second time. But groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, called that a delaying tactic.
Victims and families had waited “far too long for answers”, said Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch’s South Asia director.
“And cynical government attempts such as extending the mandate without broader refo rm, as directed by the highest court, is a further slap in the face,” she said.
“The two commissions have gathered a lot of documentation, but the authorities seem more committed to protecting perpetrators than ensuring justice in the process.”
NEW GOVERNMENT, LITTLE HOPE
Sworn in on Feb. 15, Nepal’s new Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli – whose UML party is leading a coalition with former Maoist rebels – has vowed to deliver justice.
But some of his alliance partners have different ideas.
“Reconciliation rather than prosecution is the spirit of the peace agreement,” Maoist leader Dinanath Sharma, who was a rebel negotiator during the peace talks, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It should be settled that way.”
In a country plagued with political turmoil – where politicians are seen as selfish and power-hungry, and deals are struck and broken between rival parties to create shaky coalitions – analysts say the prospects for justice are bleak.
Oli is Nepal’s 26th prime minister in 27 years. He also served as premier in 2015 and 2016. Analysts noted that little was done then to prioritise justice for war crimes.
And they fear Oli will not address victims’ grievances this time either, as doing so could lead to the prosecution of coalition partners and the collapse of the government.
“The new government is unlikely to move fast to give justice to victims,” said Guna Raj Luitel, editor of Nagarik, a daily newspaper. “The Maoists are strong partners in the coalition and may hamper the effective functioning of the commissions.”
In the meantime, some survivors said they were losing hope.
“It remains to be seen how the new prime minister will prevail on his Maoist allies,” said Janak Bahadur Raut, who said he was blindfolded and tortured by the security forces during the conflict.
“Nothing will happen to heal our wounds from the conflict under the existing laws that deny teeth to the commissions.”