Why Britain’s arrest of Nepali army colonel should serve as lesson for South Asia



A former Nepali Maoist combatant holds the Nepalese flag as he marches during a special function at the Shaktikhor cantonment site in the Chitwan District of Nepal, some 170 km south of Kathmandu, on Jan. 22, 2011.


Prakash Mathema

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama was arrested Jan. 3, after police raided his home in East Sussex south of London. The arrest was made for his alleged involvement in the torture of two detainees in 2005, during the Nepal government’s war against the Maoist insurgency.

Advocacy Forum Nepal, in coordination with a British law firm, filed the charges on behalf of the victims, whose stories have rarely been covered by mainstream media.

A special squad of the British Metropolitan Police arrested Lama, who was visiting family for Christmas break after working in South Sudan as a United Nations peacekeeper. He is charged with intentionally “inflicting severe pain or suffering” on the victims, while he was a chief officer at the Gorusinghe Army Barracks in Kapilvastu, Nepal.

Human rights activists from Himalayan Nepal and beyond, including Amnesty International, have hailed the incarceration as a potential harbinger of the end of impunity for those responsible for crimes during Nepal’s decade-long civil war that took thousands of lives.

Promises of a comprehensive process of justice never materialized in Nepal although the conflict ended in 2006. The government’s failure to hold accountable the accused Lama’s victims forced them to seek justice outside the country’s borders.

According to the British government, it has acted well within the principles of universal jurisdiction under its domestic law. And London’s response to Nepal’s request for Lama’s release — a blunt ‘no’ — suggests they intend to see the case through.

In Bhutan, where I was born, the government has neither acknowledged nor investigated incidences relating to torture carried out in the 1990s, when the regime forced an exodus of its Nepali-speaking and Sarchop citizens from the country.

In 1991, my father was among those arrested. He dared to question his detention and was dragged out of the house by two army personnel, thrown to the ground in front of his family and repeatedly kicked in the face.

He was kept in prison for 31 days, where he claims to have been tortured mercilessly before being forced to sign a ‘”voluntary” migration form at gunpoint, agreeing to leave the country. He is only one of thousands of stories of torture in Bhutan.

I have interviewed victims of torture from Bhutan’s Dagana district that are now living in the United States. All of them claim to have been abused by the Bhutan army’s Major Chachu Drukpa. Major Drukpa, who died in the late 1990s, was never tried for his alleged involvement in torturing hundreds of detainees.

Today, hundreds of others like Drukpa walk free. Though Bhutan initiated an experiment in democratic governance in 2008 through a national election, international human rights groups continue to report cases of torture. The judiciary in Bhutan is highly politicized, and international intervention under universal jurisdiction seems to be the only immediate solution to deliver justice to torture victims.

The situation in Nepal reflects an entrenched culture of political intrusions in the region’s judicial systems, with a long history of intervention from the highest levels of governments in the South Asia region. Most governments there have yet to accept that torturing detainees is a grave crime under international laws — to which they are signatories. Lama’s arrest is not without precedent in the region.

In Sri Lanka, for example, a UN report on the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government deemed that both sides had committed heinous crimes.

A report from a panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka stated that from February 2009 onward the LTTE began indiscriminately shooting civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone. Sri Lanka’s only significant war crimes trial resulted in the sentencing of former Army Chief Sarnath Fonseka to three years in prison.

In Burma, torturing detainees was very common during the military regime. The new government has not yet signed the Convention Against Torture. In June last year, Human Rights Watch stated that the government failed to take action against those behind the sectarian violence between Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The army was blamed for carrying out brutal abuses in Arakan state.

The government of Nepal, led by Maoists, decided to let Bal Krishna Dhungel — convicted of murder — walk free. This is yet another example of impunity in Nepal. Dhungel even continued to serve as a member of the Constituent Assembly after the Supreme Court reaffirmed a district court’s verdict for a life sentence in September 2010.

The cabinet, led by a former guerilla leader, is accused of having granted amnesty to hundreds of Civil War criminals. The end of Nepal’s civil conflict has not brought an end to the torture of detainees. Impunity has reached new heights and there is no effective deterrent to torture in Nepal, which now struggles to survive the transition to democracy.

The Lama case builds on the history of the 2005 sentencing by the British judiciary of Afghan warlord Faryadi Sarwar Zardad for a “heinous campaign” of torture and kidnapping in his home country.

The British government’s role in delivering justice in Zardad’s case and its decision to arrest Lama may serve as a lesson to future perpetrators of human rights violations — as well as the respective governments who do not take action against them.

TP Mishra, a contributing editor at refugee-run Bhutan News Service, lives in North Carolina, where he is studying international studies with a concentration in human rights and conflict. He can be reached at: