Maina Sunuwar was 15 year old (only) in February 2005 when a 12-member team of Nepali army headed by Captain Niranjan Basnet bundled off the young girl from her home near Kathmandu. She was suspected of having links to Maoist guerrillas who were then leading an armed rebellion against the government. That stealthy unit took her straight to an army barracks in Paanchkhaal (roughly 40 kilometres from Kathmandu city centre) from where she never returned home to her mum and dad.
Her mum, Devi Sunuwar, who now lives in Kathmandu with her two sons, has since lost her husband under suspicious circumstances. She was also being hunted on that ominous day but escaped similar fate as her daughter by sheer piece of luck; she was not home at the time. She still refuses to mourn the death of her daughter. First, she wants her daughter’s killers tried in a civil court.
Below account of how she died is based on the findings of an army court in 2006:
On the morning of 17 February 2005, Colonel Boby Khatri dispatched a team (commanded by Captain Niranjan Basnet) of 12 armymen to detain Maina and her mother. A suspected Maoist insurgent had earlier said (during investigation) that the mother and daughter were linked to the Maoist outfit. Good fortune saved Devi; she was not home when the army called. The captain told Maina’s father: “We will take her in for interrogation. When your wife returns, send her to the Panchkhal barracks. We’ll interrogate her and send her back.”
Once in the barracks, Maina’s ‘interrogation’ began in the presence of seven men including Colonel Khatri and four captains. Captains Sunil Adhikari and Amit Pun ordered Dil Bahadur Basnet and Shrikrishna Thapa to hold Maina down in a large container of water. They repeated the process until Maina was lethargic and breathless.
It is unclear what specific questions Maina was asked, (presumably whether or not she was linked to the Maoist insurgents) but once they decided that they did not receive the expected results out of the first round of interrogation (torture), the Colonel asked to commence electric shocks.
The officers ordered Srikrishna Thapa to carry out the instruction. Thapa then pulled a naked wire out of the geyser and started delivering the lethal shocks, on soles and wrists as advised by the officers presiding over the abuse. After a while, following repeated shocks, Maina’s wrists began to bleed and the perpetrator recoiled in fear. By that time, Maina had already admitted her relationship with the Maoist rebels, probably in hope of escaping the horrific torture. Nevertheless, they decided to continue the interrogation after lunch. Maina was left on guard of a soldier. After the officers went about enjoying their lunch, the victim’s condition worsened. She began to throw up and foam. The soldier guarding her panicked and called the officers.
The teenager, who was full of life only hours ago, died before the officers could fetch a medical orderly.
The colonel orchestrated a cover-up plan: Maina tried to escape while still on the way to the barracks and the army had to discharge firearm upon which she was killed.
Local police was called and asked to prepare a report accordingly.
The officers hastily sent the body to be buried just outside the barracks, in a nearby bush, but only after firing shots at the back of the body so that the escape story could be corroborated.
None of the officers involved are in jail now. None of them have been tried in civil court. At the most, there have been some namesake actions against them. One even went on to serve in the UN but was subsequently sent back.
Such are the perpetrators, in addition to many others from both sides of the bloody war between the government forces and the Maoists, that Nepal’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would bar from being prosecuted, something Devi Sunuwar cannot come to term with.
Maina Sunar is but one of thousands of other cases that tell equally, if not more, painful stories about victims of violence. A culture of impunity is their latest abuser.
Below is the complete text of Devi’s letter to Nepal’s Prime Minister in 2009. It is still relevant, more so the paragraph highlighted in bold.
Open Letter to Prime Minister
Rt. Honorable Prime Minister
Madhav Kumar Nepal,
My name is Devi Sunuwar. I am the mother of 15-year old Maina Sunuwar, who was mercilessly murdered by the then Royal Nepal Army more than five years ago now. I am quite sure that you are aware of my daughter’s murder.
I am writing this letter to you to inform you that I am still waiting for justice. Months have elapsed since the court issued arrest warrants against the perpetrators involved in the murder of my daughter but they are yet to be arrested. I want to know the reason behind the state’s apparently deliberate indifference in this regard. If you really believe in and are committed to the rule of law and justice, I am still optimistic that justice will prevail. Therefore, I earnestly beseech you to take initiatives to arrest the alleged perpetrators, i.e. Colonel Babi Khatri, Major Niranjan Basnet and Captains duo Amit Pun and Sunil Adhikari, and start criminal proceedings without further ado.
I am deeply hurt and upset by the recent news that the government has sent one of the chief perpetrators, Major Niranjan Basent, on UN peacekeeping operations. Victims of human rights violations and their families have to suffer the agony of being displaced from their homes, face financial ruin in the absence of their breadwinners and, in some instances, have to face death while seeking justice; the perpetrators, on the contrary, are laurelled with promotions and bestowed with several opportunities abroad. They are even sent on peacekeeping mission, which we all know is very lucrative. What kind of justice is this Honorable Prime Minister?
You are quite aware of the scale of human rights violations committed during the conflict. Thousands were killed and similar numbers disappeared, and tortured. I wonder why none of the perpetrators are brought to book. I wonder when your commitments and pledges to end impunity will materialize. Just promising accountability won’t demolish the edifice of impunity that is deeply-entrenched in Nepal. A genuine first step in this direction is the prosecution of even a single perpetrator. Therefore, I would humbly request you to arrest the murderers of my daughter and ensure their trial in a civilian court as the beginning of the end of impunity in Nepal.
A lot of human rights activists and national and international journalists visit me and tell me that the story of injustice meted out to my daughter is known around the world. Furthermore, the human rights defenders tell me that the case of my daughter is “emblematic”. But I am at a loss what this “emblematic” is. Perhaps, a case becomes emblematic if the injustice involved crosses all the reasonable bounds. Or when the state promotes the criminals to high-ranking posts and awards them with other prizes despite persistent pressure from national and international circles to bring the perpetrators to book.
Honorable Prime Minister,
Possibly you are not aware that I have not been able to perform cremation rites for my daughter. Her skeletal remains were disinterred from a jungle right next to the Panchkhal-based Birendra Peace-Keeping Training Center. The remains are now kept at the Forensic Laboratory of Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital. I am not in a position to pay my last homage to her departed soul before I see her perpetrators being prosecuted in a civilian court. In the midst of all this, my husband was recently found dead under apparently suspicious circumstances. I don’t know whether it was a murder or a suicide but the fact is that he had started to lose faith in justice. He died in the anguish of not getting justice despite years of continuous struggle.
Now that I have even lost my husband who always wiped off my tears, walked beside me and encouraged me during my struggle for justice, I feel languid sometimes. How long shall I have to wait for justice? What is the government doing with regard to the case of Maina Sunuwar? When and how will the alleged perpetrators be arrested? I am hopeful that Major Niranjan Basnet will be arrested upon his arrival and similar steps will be taken against all other perpetrators.
I am waiting with bated breath for answers to these questions.
8 December 2009
Updated, 15 March 2015