An accused in the cabinet
From Republica Daily (12 May, 2011)
The unyielding Maoist agenda to destroy the values of democracy and due process in Nepal seems to have achieved yet another success with the expansion of the Jhala Nath Khanal cabinet on May 4 in which the prime minister handed over the Home Ministry to the UCPN (Maoist) party and appointed as minister an ex-rebel leader accused of atrocity during the conflict.
Mr Khanal became prime minister on the basis of the ‘secret’ seven-point deal with Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, which represented an outright betrayal of the peace process. He made the infamous deal in order to become prime minister, and now has honoured it in order to remain in Singha Durbar.
Mr Khanal promised to give the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Maoists despite the party having cheated incessantly on the peace process, refusing to demobilize its private army, keeping its Young Communist League at the ready, and declaring the agenda for ‘revolt’ and ‘state capture’. Krishna Bahadur Mahara was made home minister by Mr Khanal in disregard of the formal directives of his own CPN (UML) party, which he leads as chairman.
Mr Mahara is the Dahal loyalist caught red-handed last autumn in a phone tap while arranging NPR 500 million to purchase the prime ministerial elections for his chairman. The Maoists did not deny that expose, and yet there was no public outcry when Mr Mahara was made minister for information and communication by Mr Khanal in March. Mr Mahara is now elevated to home minister, which allows the Maoist party – with the peace process as yet incomplete – to command the entire home administration and its security agencies, including the police, armed constabulary and the intelligence bureau.
In Mr Mahara’s place as minister for information and communication we now have another loyalist of the chairman, Agni Sapkota. He stands accused of direct involvement in the gruesome murder of Arjun Bahadur Lama in June 2005 in Kavre District. That killing has long been identified by the national human rights community as one of the emblematic cases which must be investigated as part of the campaign to end impunity and bring lasting peace. Upon a writ petition by Purnimaya Lama, wife of the victim, the Supreme Court in March 2008 issued an order to the police to register the case according to the law. That was finally done, and Mr Sapkota became in effect a wanted man even though he continues to walk about with the impunity born of his party’s ferocious record.
Over the last year, the Australian and United States embassies refused visa applications by Mr Sapkota based on the allegations made. The United Nations human rights office, OHCHR, has now protested Mr Sapkota’s appointment as minister. The Accountability Watch Committee, the umbrella body of human rights groups and individuals, has demanded that the government rescind the appointment and respect court orders. There seems to be a prima facie case here for contempt of court proceedings against the Khanal government, given that Mr Sapkota is a fugitive from the law.
Mr Sapkota’s defence has been alternatively that he is innocent of the accusation, and that actions carried out under the party’s directives during the conflict years cannot be prosecuted. This argument is in line with the Maoist claim that the party was fighting a ‘just war’ against an exploitative national establishment, and that the cadre cannot be charged in the courts even when they are accused of grave abuse. This position goes against the international principles of human rights, which call for the investigation and prosecution of both state and non-state actors for excesses committed.
The disregard for rule of law and due process apparent in the appointment of Mr Sapkota shows the confidence of Chairman Dahal that he can push his will, howsoever wanton, on the polity. It is part of the chairman’s step by step approach to destroy democratic institutions and processes, lowering the bar on the norms of civilized behavior. His hope is that the people will be as docile as Kathmandu’s civil society stalwarts, succumbing to the flattening force of the Maoist steamroller.
Whether or not the appointment of Mr Sapkota will be challenged on the platform of human rights and legality will be decisive for Nepal’s return to civilized society, and, incidentally, also for the evolution of the UCPN (Maoist) into a civilian party. The conflict-era victims of the insurgents as well as of the state will feel betrayed if justice is not sought from the perpetrators of brutality. There must be investigations and prosecutions, with or without a truth and reconciliation commission, against those in the Maoist ranks and in state security who are accused of excess.
The Maoist strategy which helped in the party‘s rapid spread in the late 1990s was to make ‘an example’ of local leaders through public humiliation and brutalization, including torture and killings. A number of the commissars who directed these atrocities are today front rank leaders of the party, and their career progression requires that there be no respect for international human rights norms. This could be seen in Mr Sapkota’s attacks on OHCHR last week. Indeed, those citizens who demand the prosecution of accused perpetrators without fear or favor tend today to be the most in danger of Maoist blind anger.
Sadly, no one can expect Prime Minister Khanal to be the guardian of rule of law when he willingly accepts into his cabinet a man who is accused of extreme human rights abuse. The CPN (UML) chairman and prime minster has become the handmaiden of Chairman Dahal, working hard to fulfil the wishes of the Maoist party, whether it is trying to introduce the supplementary budget or acceding to the demand for Home Affairs.
There is one remaining promise made to Chairman Dahal, the unwritten part of the seven point deal, that Mr Khanal is now required to fulfil. The deal would have him hand over the prime ministership to Mr Dahal as the expiration of the term of the Constituent Assembly nears. The plan of the Maoist chairman would then be to take charge, so as to be on the saddle to organize the next elections after his party’s own image. With the Home Ministry already in the hand, he may not think that it will be difficult.