Lack of a witness protection program has set back prosecution of those guilty of the torture and murder of journalist Dekendra Thapa
Dekendra Thapa. Photo: Dhruba Basnet
Radio journalist Dekendra Thapa was a fearless, fair and respected journalist, but he also used to serve as a mediator during the brutal conflict that had engulfed his beloved home district of Dailekh.
In June 2004, the Maoists blocked the pipe bringing water to the district capital, and Dekendra Thapa and other journalists walked to the Maoist-controlled area to try to persuade them to open it. Instead, they were kidnapped by the rebels, and while the others were released Dekendra was detained.
A month later, eyewitness reports started coming in about the Maoists torturing him by hanging him upside down and beating him until he died. The Maoists put up posters claiming responsibility for killing him.
Dekendra’a wife Laxmi lobbied hard and got forensic experts to find and exhume his body after the conflict ended in 2006. When they found the body, his mouth was wide open, his left leg and right elbow were broken. He had been buried alive.
Fast forward to 2012: police inspector Binod Sharma had kept the investigation open and finally arrested four of those accused of Dekendra’s torture and murder. One of them was Lachhiram Gharti, who confessed to the torture asked to be detained because he was wracked by guilt.
By this time, Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai had become prime minister in Kathmandu, and got his handpicked Attorney General Mukti Pradhan to call off the investigation. Prosecuting the guilty would have set a precedent for the investigation of other war crimes. Senior Maoists leaders are implicated in other cases, including the torture and murder of Krishna Adhikari, whose parents are on an extended hunger strike in Kathmandu.
Back in Dailekh, key witnesses in the prosecution of Dekendra’s killers have all retracted their testimonies one by one. Chandra Bahadur Gharti had told investigators that on 11 August 2004, he and Man Bahadur Sunparai heard screaming at the Nepal Rastriya Primary School and went to find out what was happening. “We saw Lachhiram Gharti and eight others were beating journalist Dekendra Thapa with sticks. When Dekendra couldn’t speak anymore, we saw them drag him to Lachhiram’s house,” reads Gharti’s testimony.
However, recently Chandra Bahadur Gharti made the following deposition at the District Court: “I was away working in India when the event happened, and returned only four or five months later. I don’t know who killed Dekendra, where or how.”
Another witness, Amrita Sunakhari, had told the same investigator: “A Maoist named Bam Bahadur Khadka alias Mukti, Lachhiram and others had kidnapped journalist Dekendra Thapa and kept him in our house. After questioning, they took him towards Dwari, and I heard later that they killed and buried him.”
But Sunakhari withdrew her statement and told the court recently: “I don’t know Dekendra Raj Thapa, I don’t know where, when and how his death occurred. I don’t know if the accused killed him, the accused should not be punished.”
Other government witnesses, including Jamuna Thapa, Sashiram Gharti, Man Bahadur Sutparai and Devi Lal Gharti have similarly withdrawn statements, considerably weakening the case against the accused. Another witness Balbir Ramjali had earlier testified that he had seen the accused beating up Dekendra in the school. But now, he has made a statement saying he was in India on that day. “I don’t know anything about the incident, I don’t know anyone involved, I only found out that Dekendra was killed after the police took me in.”
Prakash Adhikari is a Dailekh based journalist who has been covering his colleague’s torture and murder for the past 10 years. He says: “Maoist leaders had gathered all the witnesses from Naumule, Dwari and Baluwatar in a hotel in the district capital, forcing the accused to retract their statements.” Lawyer Basanta Gautam, who has been representing Dekendra, also confirms that witnesses withdrew the case because of threats.
Lawyer Govinda Bandi says the reason witnesses have retracted their testimonies after threats is because of the lack of witness protection laws. He adds: “This makes it difficult to get justice for the families of the victims.”
JUSTICE FOR DEKENDRA
June 2004 Radio journalist Dekendra Thapa abducted from Toli VDC
11 August 2004 Dekendra Thapa buried alive in Dwari after month-and-half of torture
28 August 2008 Laxmi Thapa lodged FIR at Dailekh Police about her husband’s murder
2012 Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his handpicked attorney general Mukti Pradhan order
police investigation quashed
5 January 2013 Police arrest Lachhiram Gharti and five others for the murder of Dekendra Thapa
28 January 2013 State lawyers file case against accused and on 31 January court ordered them
4 July 2013 The Appleate Court in Surkhet upholds verdict against accused
5 August 2013 The Supreme Court overturns the verdict and orders the accused to be freed.
20 August 2014 District court schedules to have the final hearing on the Dekendra case.
Tufan Neupane in Nepalgunj
See music video of Dekendra Thapa singing Karnali song
Dekendra’s grave Janak Nepal
Transitional injustice, Kunda Dixit’s blog
Reign of terror in Dailekh, Damakant Jayshi
Shooting the messenger, Editorial
Just want justice, Dambar K Shrestha