Nearly a year after he was arrested, the ringleader of a notorious wildlife smuggling network, Kunjok Lama, has been served seven years in jail and fined Rs100,000 by a court in Nepal.
Rasuwa District Court Judge Rajendra Nepal handed the order this week after his bench of justice convicted Lama on 25 April.
Kunjok Lama, real name Kunjok Tsering Tamang, was lodged in Rasuwa District Jail following a district court order. He was accused of smuggling endangered wildlife parts, including tiger and leopard pelt and bone from India, through Nepal to China.
After the Criminal Code came into force in 2018, in cases that would serve more than three years, the court has to decide whether a person convicted of a criminal offense is guilty or not. If found guilty, a separate hearing is held within a month to determine the sentence period.
Lama’s name appeared in all major seizures of wildlife parts in Nepal and India and he had been in the crosshairs of law enforcers in both the countries as well as Interpol, which had issued a red corner notice until the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of Nepal Police arrested him from Kathmandu last June.
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Since his arrest, Lama’s lawyers have been trying to get all three levels of Nepal’s court system to rule in his favour. First, they accused the CIB of trying to frame him and claimed that the ‘Kunjok Lama’ named in the 2005 seizure was not him as he was illiterate and could not have written any of the incriminating documents.
He reiterated the same claim in both the Rasuwa District Court’s remand trial and the final settlement of the case.
Lama then filed a petition in the Patan High Court seeking a stay on the date after the Rasuwa District Court remanded him in custody for trial. The high court also refused to release him.
Lama’s lawyer then took a habeas corpus petition to the Supreme Court, claiming that he had been detained illegally. However, Supreme Court Justices Ananda Mohan Bhattarai and Kumar Regmi also refused to release him.
His detention was ruled not illegal by the Supreme Court, which also left the verdict in the hand of the Rasuwa Court which was assessing the evidence as to whether he was the same person as the one accused.
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Nepal has received international acclaim for its success in wildlife conservation. Most recently, in 2018, it became the first tiger range country to double the number of its big cats.
But the Himalayan nation is on the traditional route for wildlife smuggling from India to China, and traffickers use it to smuggle tiger parts, among other wildlife contraband items.
Oftentimes, convicted ringleaders of these smuggling networks buy their way out of freedom, get light sentences or jump nominal bail using political connection and rampant corruption in the legal system.
Lama’s sentence, however, sets a precedent for future wildlife crime cases.
For their years of investigation leading to the arrest of Lama, Sudarshan Panthee and Birendra Singh Johari of the CIB were given the United Nations Environment Program Asia Enforcement Award earlier this year.
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