Ensure safer custodyRecent deaths expose cracks in Nepal's criminal investigation and prison management system.
On Wednesday, Durgesh Yadav was found dead in police custody at the Lalitpur Metropolitan Police Range. He had allegedly killed himself in the toilet of the police station. A rape accused, he had been kept alone in isolation, and his statement was yet to be recorded. In the second week of June, Shambhu Sada was found dead inside the toilet of his cell in the Sabaila Area Police Office in Dhanusha. The police say Sada had committed suicide, but his friends and family allege that he was murdered by the police. In January, Hem Bahadur Rawat was found dead inside the Metropolitan Police Circle in Baneshwor. While the police say Rawat hanged himself to death, his family claim he was murdered by the police.
These are just a few instances of inmates being found dead in police custody or prison. The exact number of such deaths is not available because the Department of Prison Management and the Nepal Police Headquarters don't maintain a record. Although these institutions record various other kinds of deaths and killings including homicide, suicide and abetment to suicide, they maintain silence on custodial deaths. The reason is clear enough: Custodial deaths are a failure of the police and the prisons to safeguard the lives and human rights of the inmates. But still, authorities continue to dodge taking responsibility for the deaths under their nose. It is not without reason that Nepal ranks poorly in the list of prison management, with 153 percent occupancy and prisoners living in inhumane conditions.
Mental stress is a major problem facing prisoners in Nepal. Now that the prisons have put restrictions on physical visits by friends and families of inmates due to fears of Covid-19 transmission, inmates face even greater mental stress. Although experts worry that this may lead to more suicides among inmates, police and prison authorities seem to be at a loss when it comes to addressing this anomaly. Moreover, families of the dead inmates do not get proper answers about the reasons for the deaths. In cases where the deaths have happened due to direct physical and mental torture by the police and prison authorities, the families have little access to legal recourse.The murder of Kumar Paudel, Sarlahi district in-charge of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal, in June last year, exposed the faultlines in Nepal’s policing system. While the police claimed that Paudel was killed in 'police action', the National Human Rights Commission found out that he had been murdered after being taken into custody. The commission's investigation exposed the extent to which the Nepal Police glosses over the wrongdoings of its personnel even as it disregards the human rights of the inmates. Such custodial deaths—and killings—point to a severe lack of human rights approach in prison management. Having emerged from the shadows of the decade-long insurgency, when extrajudicial killing was the norm rather than the exception, Nepal needs to work proactively towards making police custody and prisons safe for inmates. But the seeming lack of willpower among authorities to control such incidents means that police custody and prisons continue to be dangerous places.