On January 5, BBC published a news piece with this headline: ‘Nepal’s Colonel Kumar Lama charged in UK with torture’. After reading the article, two thoughts popped up in my mind. First—Why had the Nepali government not arrested this person until now? Second—Why did the UK arrest him now?
A bit of chronology of what followed is necessary to justify the above questions. The Nepali government stated that the arrest was a breach of its sovereignty, and the colonel should be released to his duty of UN ‘peacekeeping’ in Sudan. The honorable Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, with his honor hardly intact, wrote a letter to the British Prime Minister David Cameron, asking him to release Lama. Perhaps it took a while for him to understand that once Lama was in the legal system, not even Cameron can release him, unlike what Bhattarai could have done in his home turf. In desperation, the Nepali government hired Michael Caplan, the same lawyer who had defended Augusto Pinochet, the heinous Chilean war criminal.
Now, Colonel Kumar Lama had already been declared a criminal by a district court in Nepal in 2007. The post-revolution government, citing that he had gone to the UK ‘for studies’, asked his victims to wait for him to come back! The victims waited, but he was never held accountable by the government. One of the victims, Jitendra Raut, who was blindfolded and given electric shocks until he fainted, is still waiting for justice.
In the post-conflict era, Nepali society has been littered with the word ‘impunity’. Should people who blasted a school bus with children inside in Baadarmudhe be celebrated instead of punished? Should army personnel who tortured prisoners at Bhairabnath Gan be promoted instead of being tried in a civilian court? Will Nepal ever heal from her deep wounds by just letting the blood clot?
The above questions must be answered for peaceful reconciliation of a war-torn society. It is outrageous that the Nepali government has not been able to answer them until now, and in all fairness, it is not just the current Bhattarai government that is shrugging off the questions. All the governments formed after the 12 point agreement between Maoists and the parliamentary parties are accountable for moving at a snail’s pace towards reconciliation, which should have been one of their priorities. Again, the National Human Rights Commission objected to what the Bhattarai government has proposed as the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, fearing it would grant amnesties to hideous crimes.
Meanwhile, because of the Nepali government’s inaction, we now have to comment on a foreign government trying to teach us a lesson in human rights. Writing these paragraphs is immensely shameful to me.
On January 30, I saw another headline in the Guardian: “British army’s investigations into Iraq deaths to be reopened.” It reported how British soldiers had tortured Iraqi prisoners and civilians. The case is in the British high court now, which will give its decision later in the year regarding whether a number of reported cases of torture administered by the British army was ‘systemic’ or not. Or, in other words, whether the torture procedure was designed, ordered, and approved by the higher British military/political echelons.
Regarding the arrest of Colonel Lama, the UK government has done it as a signatory of the Convention against Torture. There is nothing wrong with a war criminal being arrested, but there is a problem in who arrests them. There can be very little moral high ground left, if there ever was, for the UK government if its soldiers’ “valiant deeds” in Iraq are termed ‘systemic’ by the court.
I am not just expressing tokenistic patriotism. Rather, it is an expression of genuine concern over the fact that this is the first such event of a foreign western country openly using its political weight against a Nepali citizen. Being a student of political science myself, I see this as a Realist political move by the UK government to demonstrating what they can do to the Maoist government and Nepal Army. Perhaps there are some underlying conditions on the table in a dark room full of diplomats, which were not fulfilled by the Nepali government.
Though it is important to correct the wrongs of the insurgency, it is equally important to do this independently of an interventionist move from a former colonial power. There should not be a moment wasted by the Nepali government in postponing the handling of war crimes in Nepal, not to grant amnesties indiscriminately but to punish the criminals.
The author is President of Students’ Union at Middlesex University, London