The Kathmandu District Court on Monday sentenced two men connected to the Bal Mandir to 16.5 years each, finding them guilty of repeatedly abusing three autistic girls in their early teens.
Rabin Shrestha was a former head of adoptions at the state-run orphanage and Rabin Chalise was a former student and ran a youth club there. They were also ordered to pay Rs 100,000 each to the three girls.
On 16 June, Shrestha, who had left Bal Mandir, and Chalise were arrested by the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) after child rights activists presented new evidence of repeated rape and abuse of other girls and boys at the orphanage.
Monday’s decision by the Kathmandu District Court came after the Shrestha and Chalise were denied bail in July and were kept in judicial custody as court hearings in the last four months collected testimonies from the three autistic minor girls, the two suspects, Bal Mandir officials, doctors, caretakers and other persons connected to the case.
According to the testimonies given by the three autistic girls to the CIB in July, the men would introduce themselves to the children as Bollywood film stars Amitabh and Abhisek Bachchan and would lure them into drinking alcohol and watching pornography before abusing them.
They would organise ‘wedding ceremonies’ every Saturday and dress the girls in red saris and have them dance to brass-band wedding music. One of them would spray water on the girls, who would then be forced to take off their wet clothes. This occurred during the afternoons, when Shrestha got a free pass at the orphanage. In the evenings, according to the children’s account, Shrestha used to take the children to a bar in Thamel where they were groomed to be prostitutes.
These detailed testimonies were presented to the CIB by child rights activists from ACR-Int (Action for Child Rights International). The evidence was cross-checked for veracity, and was so compelling that Shrestha and Chalise were arrested right away, while a third man was questioned but couldn’t be detained because of lack of evidence.
But this was just the latest in a series of scandals to rock Nepal’s orphanages which have become fronts for child trafficking and abuse. In February, the operator of Happy Home orphanage in Dhapakhel was arrested on fraud and child abduction charges after a seven month investigation by the CIB.
The abuses at Bal Mandir first came to light after Sarah Robinson, a British teacher came to Nepal in 2009 and decided to adopt a blind girl, whom she named ‘Hope’, from the orphanage.
Rabin Shrestha was in charge of adoptions when Robinson applied for papers for Hope. “I tried to adopt her, but Shrestha told me I couldn’t do that. He wanted me to sponsor her instead and told me I would get a decision after she turned 16,” Robinson told Nepali Times in July.
Once, when a caretaker spotted blood in the child’s underwear, Sarah took Hope to Teaching Hospital where doctors confirmed she had been raped. A CIB investigation confirmed that Shrestha and Chalise used to play games with the girls and had abused them repeatedly.
It had already crossed the 35-day statute of limitation on rape when Robinson finally filed a case against Shrestha (she was afraid he could deny her Hope if she accused him) so she only filed an FIR with police on grounds of sexual abuse. Shrestha was issued a warning in 2012, but not arrested.
Lawyer Sapana Pradhan Malla also listed five other pleas: amendment to the 35-day limit, a mandamus order to not dismiss the case, to teach children about sexual abuse, to set up a child-abuse monitoring system at Bal Mandir and for the Central Children’s Welfare Board to come up with a manual for regulation.
Subash Kumar Pokharel, General Secretary of Bal Mandir, was asked in July how the accused could go in and out of Bal Mandir, but he was evasive. Instead, he accused activists of using Bal Mandir’s children against the institution that protected them.
Established in 1964 to take care of orphans and abandoned children, Bal Mandir was a powerful institution with royal patronage. With Queen Ratna at the helm, it put together buildings and 50 ropanis of property which are now prime real estate.
Administered by the quasi-NGO, Nepal Children’s Organisation (NCO), Bal Mandirs across the country today take care of over 600 children in 11 homes. Since the loss of its royal backing, the NCO has been plagued by political interference and corruption. Its buildings and property have been leased out to private individuals, amidst allegations of huge kickbacks to political appointees in the NCO.
In 2011, the Public Accounts Committee of the legislature parliament ordered the NCO to systematise its lease process. Seeing the conditions at Bal Mandir, the Australian charity Mitrataa Foundation agreed to manage the orphanages for five years in 2009, but pulled out within 12 months because of widespread corruption and mismanagement at the NCO.
Names of Sarah Robinson and Hope have been changed for safety and privacy reasons.
Child predators, Sunir Pandey
(Un)happy homes, Sunir Pandey
Selling sympathy, Bhrikuti Rai
At the mercy of mercenaries, Trishna Rana