Police corruption and rape case cover-ups in Nepal
Supporting youth engagement is critical when accountability is a matter of life and death.
Three months ago today, the thirteen-year-old Nirmala Pant went to do homework at her friend’s house in the Bhimdatta Municipality, Kanchanpur district, Western Nepal, and never returned. The Class 9 student was found dead the next day 1 km away from her home — raped and murdered.
The police’s handling of this case has led to widespread and credible allegations of police corruption, malpractice and the illegal destruction of evidence. Sparking a protest that has shaken the country and filled social media spaces under the hash tags #JusticeForNirmala and #RageAgainstRape.
By mid-September thousands of people took part in rallies, street performances, and sit-ins, organised by civilians via social media and youth networks. The young activists and protesters demand justice in this specific case, characterised by police corruption. They also demand greater accountability from a police service marred by a history of widespread corruption and abuses of power. The activists demand that in “New Nepal” powerful men should not be able to get away with violence against women. Wealth and ties to influential people in politics and the police should not be a “get out of jail free card.” Ultimately, these young activists demand a government and a police accountable to the people they should be protecting and serving: the public and the victims.
The context: police corruption and impunity for rapists
Nepal has just emerged from a civil war with widespread human rights violations, including rape and murder of women committed by both government forces and rebel combatants. To date, the government has not ensured legal reforms in order to persecute wartime rape, as a Human Rights Watch study highlights.
Shockingly, since the end of the war, rape cases have actually increased and in more than half the cases the victims are minors. With this backdrop of a violent recent history in a deeply patriarchal society, the systemic corruption in the police force enhances a culture of impunity towards rapists, even if they are also murderers.
A close-meshed network between security officials and politicians creates interdependencies and facilitates corrupt activities — making them the norm more than the exception. This is illustrated in a report by the Asia Foundation. Our research suggests that the public lacks trust in the police force and does not believe that formal institutions will address their grievances. In the case of rape, the police are known to refuse to register a First Information Reports (FIR), as the recent Durbarmarg rape case exemplifies. More often than not, culprits use personal connections, money, and power to remain beyond the scope of the judiciary, activating existing social networks of corruption between police, politicians, and other rich and powerful players.
The case: alleged destruction of evidence and the framing of an innocent man
The Nirmala Pant murder investigation is a clear-cut case of police corruption, a cover-up to protect the real culprits. The Superintendent of Police (SP) in charge of the case, Dilli Raj Bista, his subordinates, and even the CBI team deployed after the incident are alleged to have intentionally contaminated evidence and the crime scene.
The police failed to search for the teenager, then took over an hour to reach the place where the dead body was found. The crime scene was not screened off with the public trampling over evidence. The dead body was cleaned before an examination could be conducted and an officer was caught on video washing her trousers and destroying evidence at the crime scene.
The notebook the girl fetched from her friends house was still dry, even though it had rained that night, suggesting the girl might not have been murdered in the place she was found. But the police never looked into this circumstantial evidence nor did they conduct a thorough investigation.
Only two days after they found her body the police allegedly pressurised the family to cremate their child. The two sisters Nirmala had set off to visit were taken in for questioning, but then released, as their father was a friend of SP Bista.
Ultimately, the police framed Dilip Singh Bista, a man with severe learning difficulties, for the rape and murder. The investigators placed a piece of cloth torn from his shirt at the crime scene. He was later released after the DNA results came back negative.
Collective citizen mobilisation: youth take the lead
These incidents ignited a nation-wide protest, still vibrant three months after Nirmala’s violent death. Youth in Kathmandu took to the streets demanding accountability from the police and government officials. They still gather at Maitighar Mandala every Saturday from 12 to 1pm to demand justice for Nirmala Pant and other victims of rape and murder. Their presence reminds the government and the victim’s family that there are people who are not willing to accept that murderers can get away with their crimes due to their ability to use their positions of power and networks in corrupt ways.
Youth outrage in Nepal: Occupy Baluwatar and #metoo
The #JusticeForNirmala protest is fuelled by a longstanding public outrage at the number of rapes gone without action because of the lack of police interest, social stigma, and insufficient legal protection of the victims. In the past years, young people have protested police corruption in rape cases on the streets of Kathmandu. Most notably, in 2012 the rape of Sita Rai by a police constable triggered the Occupy Baluwatar campaign against gender-based violence, injustice, impunity and state corruption. Coordinated over social media, around 100 youth activists gathered outside the Prime Minister’s official residence and remained there for 107 days.
Now in 2018, once again, young urban civilians are the driving force demanding justice and holding the people in power accountable. The protesters found strength in the global #metoo movement that called out rapists and demanded the end of victim blaming and stigmatisation. They organised the protest over social media sites and along existing youth networks and organisations. Participation, however, occurs as a private citizen, less as NGO and youth organisation representatives, for fear of potential political fallout.
Change and hope: youth optimism in New Nepal
It is hope that sparks the engagement of many young people
A spirit of optimism reverberates among the young activists. Last year, young people participated in the first democratic elections at local level in 16 years. Our field research demonstrates that youth are hopeful that these constitutional changes will bring local communities closer to politicians and officials. They hope that now politicians will care more about the people who elected them into power, and that devolved government will become more approachable for the common person and thus more accountable.
While anger is a strong component of the current protest, it is this hope that sparks the engagement of many young people. They want to shape the future of their country and they want to be a part of this change. Their engagement opposes a widespread mentality that nothing can be done against corruption or misuse of power, summarised in the Nepalese phrase ke garne, “what to do?”
Reluctant government: protecting their own
In reaction to the protests, the government was reluctant to take action in the Nirmala Pant rape and murder case. Eventually they formed probe committees. However, threats hampered the committee’s work and activists criticised its report, released in early October, as protecting the culprits. It included significant errors and failed to include any information that could help shed light on who committed the crime or why the police destroyed evidence. It also didn’t answer crucial question such as which officials gave the order for the police to shoot at protestors in late August, killing another minor, or who threatened a probe committee member.
With regard to the involved police officers, the government suspended the Superintendent of Police and seven other police personnel for “negligence during the investigation.” The departmental action was a slap in the face for the victim’s family and the protesters, as the alleged intentional destruction of evidence did not entail legal actions such as criminal proceedings.
Then, under pressure from the victim’s family, the police took DNA samples from SP Bista, his son, and Bhimdatta Municipality Mayor’s nephew, as the latter two frequented the house of Nirmala’s friend. The results came back negative, but activists remain suspicious and question the independence of the institute that tested the samples.
Restrictive government: closing spaces for civil action
Governments world-wide have introduced restrictive laws that limit the way civil society organisations (CSOs) can operate, and make use of other formal and informal tactics that work to the disadvantage of CSOs. Nepal follows this trend. Since the signing of the Constitution in 2015, the government has set about controlling the CSO sector. In brief, the government still encourages CSOs as service providers, but has made various attempts to curb civil society involvement rights, policy, and advocacy works, especially with regard to international NGOs and foreign funders. This can be interpreted as a direct attack on their freedom of speech and on global human rights and anti-corruption measures.
Strengthening local civil society is important when the goal is greater accountability
While the Nepal government explains these measures with the need for accountability in the CSO sector, where corruption is also rampant, the targeting of rights- and advocacy based projects indicates that the government is becoming more autocratic and less accountable to the people.
Simultaneously, many international donors that supported CSOs during Nepal’s recent instability have now adopted policies of working directly with the government. This is of course a valid strategy of international donors given that Nepal now has a stable government. But this shouldn’t be an either/or choice and donors should recognise that strengthening local civil society is an important component in working with local government when the goal is greater accountability.
Support youth for increased government accountability
In this post-conflict-scenario the new federal government of Nepal is vulnerable. It is crucial for citizens to regain trust in the police and other formal institutions, and — in return — for the government to offer them the basic requirements of safety and justice that so far have been denied to Nirmala Pant and her family.
The recent attacks on civil society imply that the need for vocal collective citizen mobilisation demanding government accountability remains great. In the present restrictive context, supporting youth is crucial as youth engagement can help increase accountability of the government officials towards the citizens of Nepal and curb corruption, particularly at the local level.
The anger of the youth sparked the #JusticeForNirmala protests, but it was the youth’s desire to advocate for rights, to hold the powerful agents accountable, and to shape the future of Nepal that kept them aflame. It is this context of youth engagement that promises a good entry point for development aid donors wanting to strengthen citizen participation in the new constitutional setup of Nepal.
There is a strong appetite for change among young people in Nepal, who regard the changes in the constitution as an entry point for greater engagement and an increased role for youth in promoting accountability. This is in spite of government attempts to limit civic space, showing that there is a potential resilience among youth organisations that donors should engage with.
Development aid donors who support the new formal structures in place by working with what is now a stable government after years of instability, should also ensure that this work is not at the expense of civil society. It is important that donors now capitalise upon the current momentum among the youth in addition to strengthening their work with formal institutions, and:
– Support platforms where young independent campaigners can interact with various stakeholders, such as established human rights actors and other CSOs, parliamentarians and government representatives to build forms of mutual trust and shape a discourse of accountability.
– Support context mapping of youth organisations.
– Fund regional resource centres that can equip young civil society actors with knowledge provisions, research, and spaces to convene and share knowledge.
– Provide specific need-based training possibilities for youth, for example in professional campaigning to enable strategic planning and solid agenda-building, issue-related networking and lobbying, and tools to build trust among the various stakeholders within the youth movement and beyond.
– Offer simpler processes for smaller and more flexible forms of funding focused on agendas designed by the local requirements of campaigners and not by the expectations of the donors.
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All views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U4 partner agencies, or CMI/U4.