Arrest Order Against Dhungel A Blow To Prachanda
Ritu Raj Subedi
Towards the end of his tenure as the Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda is likely to face a bizarre paradox. He has to oversee a legal action against one of his lieutenants of the ‘people’s war’ over the murder of an individual. The Supreme Court Thursday ordered the chief of Nepal Police to round up murder convict Bal Krishna Dhungel, former lawmaker from the ruling CPN - Maoist Centre, and throw him in jail within a week. The court move sends jitters through various Maoist groups that have been demanding exonerations for their cadres from the conflict related crimes through the transitional justice mechanism. Around 28 Maoist cadres are facing similar charges. They fear that Dhungel’s arrest can open the floodgates for around 228 lawsuits that are sub judice in various courts across the country.
Contempt of court
The apex court’s order came in a response to a contempt of court case filed by advocate Dinesh Tripathi. Dhungel has been on the loose despite the SC’s directives to the administration to send him up. This is a glaring example of how impunity is ruling the roost in the country. Although he has been enjoying derogation and freely travelling under the nose of security personnel, he has now taken his lumps for insulting the court and threatening to harm the judges. One month ago while addressing a function at Saipu in Ramechhap, Dhungel reportedly challenged the verdict and spoke with venom: “I will not accept the apex court’s verdict. I will quash it. A warrant will be issued against the judge that gave the verdict. I won’t go to jail until I slash his thighs.”
A single bench of the court issued the new order based on the footage of Dhungel’s speech. The SC said that Dhungel needs to be arrested as he has been a threat to the conflict victims and society, and to safeguard the dignity of independent judiciary and rule of law. It also wrote to Prime Minister Prachanda to extend support to put him behind bars. The court has also criticised the Ministry of Home Affairs and police force for not implementing its orders.
Dhungel was found culpable in the killing of Ujjan Kumar Shrestha of Okhaldhunga in 1998. The Okhaldhunga District Court sentenced him to life in prison in 2004, but the Rajbiraj Appellate Court overturned this decision. In 2010, the apex court upheld the district court ruling, but the government failed to execute the verdict as Dhungel, in his capacity of a lawmaker, avoided the arrest with the Maoist Centre frequently becoming the part of the government.
Of course, the SC’s order has dealt a blow to PM Prachanda, who had pulled out of his support to KP Sharma Oli-led government, accusing Oli of not withdrawing the legal cases against the Maoist workers. Almost nine months elapsed since Prachanda has become the PM, but he did not lift a finger to this end. Now even in the eyes of his own cadres, PM Prachanda has failed to justify the downfall of Oli’s government as they are afraid of being arrested anytime with the regular court tackling the cases relating to the armed conflict. The courts have issued arrest warrant against the Maoist cadres in many districts, including Okhaldhunga, Gorkha, Kavre, Ramechhpa, Sindhuli and Dailekh. A bench led by the then Chief Justice Kalyan Shrestha had ordered the district courts to proceed with the war era’s cases.
The hope of the implicated Maoist cadres to secure clemency is fading away as PM Prachanda is to step down following the local election slated for May 14 as per the previous agreement with the Nepali Congress. It will be tough for the Maoist leadership to absolve its cadres of the criminal charges when it will be a junior partner under the NC-led government. For the pro-western NC, it will not be easy to violate the international human rights laws and conventions and set free the incriminated Maoist workers.
Prior to backing out of the UML-led government, the Maoist leader had claimed that the UML was working to imprison them by invoking the insurgency era cases. They blamed it for instigating human rights activists to file cases in the courts and reverse the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This indictment gained further credence in the wake of PM Prachanda’s cancelled trip to Australia. However, the UML had refuted the charges and said that it was ready to pardon the former rebels in line with the domestic and international laws. For this, it prepared a draft amendment to the Act related to the Truth Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappearances with the consent of the Maoist Centre itself, the United Nations, the Nepal Army, conflict victims and the international community. But as the bill was to land in the parliament for deliberations and approval, the Maoist Centre all of sudden withdrew its support leading to fall of the UML-led government.
As per the amendment proposal, there will not be amnesty for three types of crime- ‘serious crime’, ‘serious human rights violation’ and ‘other crimes of serious nature.’ It mentions that there will not be time limit for filing lawsuits at a Special Court against the perpetrators involved in these specified three crimes. It has envisioned setting up a Special Court at the earliest to look after complaints lodged at the TRC. The concerned stakeholders agreed to free those offenders involved in minor crimes by slapping little punishment or fine on them. It envisages framing laws to criminalise torture and enforced disappearances. Both the Nepal Army and the Maoist Centre agreed to give the final go-ahead for the draft amendment.
After the Maoist Centre formed the new coalition, the UML-led initiative to close the horrific chapter of ruthless insurgency came to an abrupt halt. PM Prachanda’s obvious indifference to this sensitive issue gives credence that there lay hidden geopolitical reasons behind the collapse of Oli’s government that attempted to reduce Nepal’s dependency on India by enhancing connectivity and cooperation with the northern neighbour. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be argued that the issue of conflict cases was just façade behind bringing down the previous government.