With a complaint formally registered against Mahara, all eyes are now on the police and the governmentAs the country prepares for Dashain holidays, there are fears about the investigation’s progress and about the complainant’s safety.
A formal police complaint has been lodged against Krishna Bahadur Mahara, accusing the former Speaker of the House of rape.
According to Inspector General of Police Sarbendra Khanal, a complaint was lodged at the Baneshwor police station on Friday evening. While Mahara has resigned as Speaker, he remains a Member of Parliament and the police are required to inform the Parliament of the complaint before any action can be taken, said Khanal. However, since Parliament is not in session, Mahara can be taken into custody without parliamentary approval.
The complaint is one more crest in what has been a rollercoaster week, with Dashain holidays just about to begin. A woman who works at the Parliament Secretariat first made the allegations against Mahara on Monday night via an online media portal. She then recanted her accusations in a video interview for another media portal. Many had believed that her recantation was made under duress. Police had failed to make any progress on the case, citing the lack of a formal complaint and the woman’s disavowal of her initial allegations.
According to Gyan Bahadur Karki, an officer at the Kathmandu District Court, the police first need to obtain an arrest warrant from the courts before they can take anyone into custody.
“I am in constant touch with the Baneshwor police. As of now, they have not sought an arrest warrant,” said Karki. “Normally, on Saturdays and the day of Dashain, we don’t open the courts.”
Although the courts have already gone on holiday, Karki said that special provisions can be made if the police approach them for a warrant.
Earlier, any legal complaint against a sitting Member of Parliament would’ve automatically entailed an end to their parliamentary status. However, recent demands by Members of Parliament have led to that provision being scrapped, Now, police can arrest lawmakers but they will retain their positions, according to Rojnath Pandey, spokesperson of the Federal Parliament.
In the aftermath of the accusations and Mahara’s subsequent resignation as Speaker of the House, there were many fears regarding the woman’s safety, the politicisation of the case, and if an impartial investigation into Mahara was even possible, given his political standing in the ruling Nepal Communist Party.
A rising intolerance for dissent against the ruling party has led to significant concerns about the woman’s safety, especially as her complaint comes on the eve of the beginning of the Dashain holidays, which begin on October 5 and end on October 9.
“I am scared when I hear a knock on my neighbour’s door,” the woman told the Post. “I can’t trust anyone to protect me.”
Since the allegations surfaced last week and the way the story blew up in the press and social media, the woman said she is sick and tired of having to explain herself to everyone.
“Because I spoke publicly about my depression, people think they can treat me any way they like,” she told the Post. “There is no one by my side to support me and I feel helpless.”
In the days since the accusations, the woman has spoken publicly about her battle with depression, leading mental health practitioners to caution investigating agencies to handle her case with an extra layer of sensitivity.
“It is clear that she is extremely disturbed after going through this traumatic incident and her existing psychological problem most likely is making it worse,” said Surendra Sherchan, former chief of the government-run Mental Hospital. “The state should take initiative to ensure that the ensuing developments in the case don’t aggravate her situation.”
The video taking back her accusations against Mahara has already led many to believe that significant pressure is being exerted on her to withdraw her allegations. Many fear that this pressure could take more sinister forms. On Thursday, Ajay Babu Shiwakoti, the editor of the online portal that first reported the allegations, said he was being threatened and was afraid for his life. Shiwakoti told the Post that he was restricted within the confines of his residence for his own security and had not left his home.
Despite the holidays, the National Human Rights Commission has said that it will be closely following security threats to both the woman and Shiwakoti.
“We will try to meet the woman as well as journalist Shiwakoti to assess security threats for them and plan how to move forward accordingly,” said Bed Prasad Bhattarai, secretary at Commission. “Our office will remain open for three hours every day during Dashain so we will be following the case closely,”
The commission has formed a high-level panel to study and monitor the progress in the investigation so far into the rape allegations against Mahara. The commission has also sent letters to the Home Ministry and Nepal Police headquarters asking for updates on the investigation.
The international community, too, has expressed concerns, even though it stopped short of referring to Mahara by name.
Issuing a statement on Friday, the United Nations and six foreign missions in Nepal reminded the government of Nepal of its obligations under international law to ensure access to justice for victims, stand for victims’ rights and send a zero-tolerance message to combat gender-based violence.
Though the statement referred to cases of Nirmala Pant and Maya BK, it’s issuance in the wake of rape allegations against Mahara is significant.
“We are particularly concerned about the reported impunity for the perpetrators of sexual violence and violence against women, as also stated by the Special Rapporteur on violence against women during her visit to Nepal in November 2018,” read the statement, issued jointly by the embassies of Australia, Finland, France, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations in Nepal.
While politicians from across the political spectrum have maintained silence, the ruling party and the government have failed to make any move towards prodding the investigating agencies to pursue allegations charges in a strong fashion, thereby raising the chances of impunity.
“We also note with concern the inherent power imbalance that exists in gender-based violence, which may hinder the victims’ capacity to report the violence suffered to the authorities and seek assistance,” said the international community. “In this context, we urge the government to provide measures to foster effective and efficient reporting.”