As the ambulance carrying the remains of the five young men of Dhanusha made its way from the District Police Office to Devi Chok in Janakpur on Wednesday morning, a sizable number of curious bystanders had gathered for the procession. For the families of the deceased, however, it was a moment they had been anxiously awaiting for more than 10 years.
On 8 October 2003, eleven students including Sanjeev Kumar Karna (24), Durgesh Labh (23), Jitendra Jha (20), Pramod Narayan Mandal (19), and Shailendra Yadav (17) were arrested by the joint security forces at Devi Chok. While six men were released later on, the ill-fated five were never seen again. They were reportedly taken to the banks of the Kamala River in Godar and shot dead by the army on suspicion of being Maoists.
In August 2010, an exhumation team led by the National Human Rights Commission unearthed four bodies near the Kamala River. The remains were sent to Finland and the National Forensic Laboratory in Kathmandu for DNA testing. The skeleton of the fifth person was found in February 2011 and sent for examination last year. Results confirmed that Karna, Labh, Jha, Mandal, and Yadav were the ones who were killed.
As the families performed the last rites of their loved ones at Swargadwari on Wednesday, it provided them a much needed sense of closure. But their struggle to find the truth and seek justice has been long, grueling, and frustrating at every turn. Sanjeev’s father Jai Kishor Labh, who was a lawyer, went from one government office to another looking for answers and kept up the fight until his last breath.
“The anguish of not knowing how and why his son was disappeared eventually took our father’s life. Our 59-year-old-mother is extremely frail, she refuses to eat, but is still carrying on the search for justice. Her only wish before she dies is to see the accused being prosecuted in court,” says Mamata Karna, Sanjeev’s younger sister.
According to the NHRC’s press briefing in Dhanusha on Wednesday, Sanjeev and his friends had been blindfolded and shot by the army in a premeditated encounter. At the time of the murders, Chuda Bahadur Shrestha was the chief of the regional police office, Kuber Singh Rana, former IGP of police was then SSP in Dhanusha, Rewati Raj Kafle was the chief district officer, and Major Anup Adhikari was in charge of the Dharapani Army Barrack. But that is only half the truth. Victims’ families still don’t know why the men were targeted in the first place and we are nowhere close to trying the guilty.
Bed Prasad Bhattarai, acting secretary of the NHRC, however, is hopeful that those accused in the murder will be tried under criminal law very soon. “An investigation carried out by a constitutional body like the NHRC with the full involvement of the police and incriminating forensic evidence should put pressure on the government and speed up the process,” Bhattarai told me over the phone.
But the state’s continuing apathy does not give victims much reason for hope. The handing over of the remains in Janakpur this week was a watershed moment in Nepal’s history and yet the government didn’t bother to send a single representative from Kathmandu.
“It was a day of mourning and grieving. The least the state could have done was to stand besides us, share our pain, and tell us that our brothers died for the good of this country. We didn’t need an apology from their side,” says Mamata. “Even Maoist leaders came to pay their respect to the dead. We felt like we had lost our guardians.”
In another brazen act earlier in the year, the Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation appointed Chuda Bahadur Shrestha in a taskforce set up to provide recommendations for a truth and reconciliation bill, even after Shrestha had been named as one of the prime culprits in the Dhanusha case. The message the government seems to be sending out to thousands of victims and their families is that their sufferings and plight are simply not serious enough to warrant its attention.
While senior Maoist leaders Dev Gurung, Matrika Yadav, and Krishna Bahadur Mahara came to Janakpur to express their condolence and were quick to declare the five men as martyrs, they cannot absolve themselves of responsibility because their party has repeatedly occluded the path to justice. Kuber Singh Rana was promoted to the head of Nepal police in September 2012 at the time of Baburam Bhattarai’s government.
It was an act of self-preservation on Bhattarai’s behalf because if he had agreed to investigate and punish the security personnel involved in extra-judicial killings in Dhanusha, he would then be obligated to prosecute those accused of war crimes from his own party like Bal Krishna Dhungel.
It is this complicity of the two former enemies in covering each other’s backs that continues to hinder Nepal’s transitional justice mechanism and results in a toothless bill full of provisions for amnesty like the one that was passed in April this year.
Says Mamata Karna: “The case of my brother and his friends is clear so there is no need to wait for the TRC. There is ample proof, all we need is for those accused to be tried under criminal law immediately.”
(With additional reporting by Manik Jha and Ishwar Chandra Jha in Janakpur).