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In cold blood

NOV 09 -

The government, with the backing of PM Baburam Bhattarai, has recommended that President Ram Baran Yadav give CA member Balkrishna Dhungel an amnesty in a murder case. Dhungel’s case is well known, given that it is one of the few conflict-era cases which have actually had a verdict. It is a murder case for which Dhungel has been convicted in both the Okaldhunga District Court and the Supreme Court. The government’s rationale in asking for an amnesty is that the case is ‘political’. Now, the President must decide whether he agrees with this assessment. I’m confused because I have read a lot on the case; I have met with lawyers and I have met with the victim’s own sister and the first thing that struck me in all of these conversations is how unpolitical the case is. Make no mistake, this was murder in cold blood. The only thing that is political about this whole situation is how justice has been avoided.

Firstly, Balkrishna Dhungel wasn’t even a Maoist when he committed the crime. He had been in the Army for four years and had recently deserted it. In that interim period, he was essentially just a man in the village who knew how to use a gun.

It was Okhaldhunga district in 1998. The conflict had only been running for two years and, according to Sabitiri Shrestha, the sister of the deceased, there was only one Maoist in the village—Pushkar Gautam—who spent his time showing people propaganda pamphlets. Class politics had not yet entered the village psyche. The main social concern was still caste dynamics. And as a Brahmin, this was as much Balkrishna Dhungel’s concern as anyone else’s.

A few months before he was murdered, Ujjan Kumar Shrestha married a Brahmin girl, Renuka Poudel, for love. Her brothers took great exception to what they perceived as their sister’s fall in social status and began rallying support from fellow high caste villagers. The Poudel brothers made it known that they would punish Ujjan for his audacity. Ujjan chose to brush off the threats as empty.

So it must have been a shock to him when, at 4:30am on June 24, 1998, as he was on his way to the neighbouring district to carry goods, he and his two employees were stopped on the path by a group of men, which included the Poudel brothers. The only Maoist in the village, Pushkar Gautam, was also amongst them. The murder happened quickly. One of Ujjan’s employees (who has also been accused of collaborating in the murder) pointed out Ujjan in the gloom. Pushkar shone a torch on Ujjan’s face and Balkrishna Dhungel shot him in the head. According to the witness testimony of Ujjan’s other employee, the group of men then began butchering Ujjan’s body on the side of the path. It is believed that Ujjan’s dismembered body was then thrown into the Likhu river.

The first police personnel on the scene, from the local police post, remarked that it was a straightforward murder. Police officers from the Okhaldhunga District Police Office flew in by helicopter and registered an FIR for murder. Despite impunity being so rife in Nepal, this case was so easily identified as personal vengeance that the Okhaldhunga District Court found Dhungel guilty of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment and confiscation of property.

So far, so unpolitical.

But Dhungel had joined the Maoists by then. He had worked his way up the ranks, gaining more connections and clout by the year. In 2002, a group of Maoists killed Ganesh Kumar Shrestha, Ujjan Kumar Shrestha’s elder brother, who had filed the original FIR about Ujjan’s murder with the police. Dhungel was not at the scene, but there are many who see his hand in this, not least because he was openly talking about killing Ganesh and had been sending him threats since the case against him was filed in 1998. To the Shrestha family’s knowledge, Ganesh’s case has not been investigated and they are sent away by the police whenever they go to enquire about it.

As Dhungel’s political strength grew, so did his ability to pervert the course of justice. In 2006, the Appellate court overturned Dhungel’s conviction and set him free, paving his way into party politics as a CA member. An appeal against this decision was filed and in January 2010 the Supreme Court upheld the original decision of the District Court that Dhungel should spend his life behind bars. But no move was made to arrest him and Dhungel remained a free man. On  June 14, 2011, family members of Ujjan Kumar Shrestha filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking an interim order against Dhungel asking that he be demoted as a CA member and made to serve his prison sentence. After 12 days the Supreme Court held a session on this. Notably none of the Shrestha family’s Okhaldhunga-based lawyers showed up in the courtroom because they had received death threats, allegedly from Dhungel himself.

This time the defence’s logic was that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which is still non-existent) should be used in relation to Dhungel’s crime. The Supreme Court saw through this ploy, which would have set a precedent for a de facto amnesty for all conflict-era cases. On June 26, the Supreme Court issued a writ stating unequivocally that “there is nothing blocking the arrest of Dhungel”.

Straight after the Supreme Court’s ruling, an application for amnesty for Dhungel was sent to the President on the grounds that the case was “political” and thus unfair. This was stalled for a while during the changeover of government, but is back again, and now with Baburam Bhattarai’s backing.

This is dangerous ground that the government is beginning to tread. Do they really want to undermine the Supreme Court by suggesting Dhungel’s sentencing is wrong? Is one murderer’s liberty worth jeopardising the rule of law in this country?

Dhungel is hiding in the skirts of the Maoists, using his political card and putting his party’s integrity on the line for a murder he committed in order to maintain caste hierarchies.  The case was never political, but this call for amnesty is.

Let’s hope this is recognised and the request for amnesty is revoked or else all of us living in this country—be we pro-Maoist, pro-Monarchy or just pro-ourselves—can wave goodbye to a rule of law which was designed to keep us safer, more respected and more equal than any government ever could.

Liddell has been working on human rights issues in Nepal for the past two years

Posted on: 2011-11-10 09:24


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